Onboard a Flying Swine Flu Screening Clinic

worlddoctorfluI’m healthy and I have proof!  Yes, indeedy, I have a cheerful yellow A4 size piece of paper from the Japanese government that testifies to the fact that I survived and passed a quarantine inspection.  That’s no small matter, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to surviving: 1) the hellish drive from my home to the San Francisco Airport, 2) the security inspection line at the airport, where well-meaning security guards who remind me of my mother bellow admonitions like “Take your shoes off!”, 3) airline food, 4) economy seating (the meaning of numb-bummosis should be clear even to people who are NOT medical professionals), 5) Eight channels of mildly uninspiring movies to choose from on the 10 hour flight.

I travel to Tokyo on business pretty much every month these days.  The flight to Tokyo from San Francisco is roughly 10 hours, depending on tail wind and whether the captain has a led foot and an “in” with the air traffic controllers (at least that’s how I imagine it from my position of complete ignorance).  Truth be told, there are many things I’d like to avoid the first hour after I land, such as long lines at immigration, lost luggage, and missing the limo bus to the hotel by 1 minute, then having to race down to the train with my bags bouncing wildly behind me.  But now #1 on my list of things I’d rather not do just after landing is to sit in the very same airline seat my butt has become all too familiar with for yet another hour while a swarm of contagion control specialists inspects me for communicable diseases.  Don’t get me wrong, the dozen of so healthcare workers who boarded our plane were incredibly professional and efficient.  And for all I know they were friendly, too, only it was difficult to tell since they were covered head to toe in disposable hospital gear, including industrial strength face masks of way better quality than the free ones they were giving to us, safety goggles and, frequently, hairnets.  There is at least a non-zero chance that they were sticking their tongues out at me beneath their face coverings, and then chuckling about it later in the debriefing.

Determined to be an ambassador of goodwill and cooperation, I sat quietly with a stupid smile frozen on my face while one after another worker interacted with me.  One had a look at a form that I had to fill out reporting whether or not I was knowingly diseased.  (I guess if someone KNOWS, then they shouldn’t get on the airplane, right? . . . but there probably ARE some people who would fly while knowingly sick and then actually be stupid enough to report it on the form.)  One person aimed something that looked like a Pentax camera at me, but it was only a thermal imaging device taking my temperature remotely.  (Gee, I sure am glad that menopause hasn’t set in, as some of my thus-afflicted friends tell me they break into a sweat at a moment’s notice, something I’m thinking is sure to get you thrown into quarantine in one of these inspections.)  One person looked me over with suspicion, and at least 2 people counted me in an effort to make sure no one escaped detection (That would be an inspection detection defection, I guess.)  A few passengers bordered on unruly behavior, and at least one semi-inebriated business class passenger spouted off a few disparaging remarks like “Awe, come on already!”  But I noticed most people did that out of sight of the inspection crew, suspecting, as I did, that they’d have no hesitation in kicking our asses all the way back to whence we came.

This experience was nothing short of an “Andromeda Strain” movie re-enactment for me.  Although I totally appreciate the intent of this kind of measure to protect humanity from the unnecessary spread of illness, I kept thinking about how little it would take to plunge our civilized world into fearful little clusters of people determined to protect themselves from dangerous outside influences, and provide sufficient food, water and other resources for them and their kind.  I smirked when I realized that I had never thought to include pandemic in my business risk analysis.  And I started wondering if I should just plan on staying in Japan for a couple of years to avoid the risk associated with rolling the inspection dice each month.

No matter, by 8 PM I was having dinner on the 46th floor of a stunning building in Shiodome, Tokyo, looking out on a gorgeous view of the vast expanse of buildings and lights that comprise Tokyo at night.  A few glasses of sake later I had convinced myself that this incredible country was worth the trouble.

Stay scrappy, and cover your cough!

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