"You and Qian are headed to America soon," they'll say in a worried tone. "What about H1N1 and all the people who've had it there?"
My response, "What about it?"
Nearly all Chinese people I've heard talk about H1N1 are scared. If I didn't read the news and just based my perspective on the people around me, I'd certainly think that humanity is on the brink of a worldwide flu pandemic.
Reading the following editorial from The Los Angeles Times from someone who experienced a quarantine in China helps explain why Chinese people are on edge:
Simply, the people who are suspected of possibly having H1N1 become, for all intents and purposes, swine on the back of a truck. Seeing this kind of action, it's easy to see why Chinese people are freaked out.
Image from Xinhua News
When I arrived in China late last month, the hazmat-suited public officials who met my plane had the same question for each passenger: "Have you had contact with pigs?" The officials took our temperatures, and then we were free to pass through customs and go on our way.
As a physician who had come to Shanghai to lecture at a Chinese medical school, I found it interesting to witness firsthand China's public health response to the H1N1 virus. The process seemed like overkill, and it had debatable public health benefits, but it didn't inconvenience me terribly. Or so I thought at the time.
The next evening, I returned from dinner to find two white-coated public health workers waiting for me in the lobby of my hotel. Apparently, a passenger three rows in front and five seats across from me on the flight had tested positive for H1N1. I was given 30 minutes to pack my belongings. When I returned with my bags, I noticed that the hotel staff stood in the corner of the suddenly cleared lobby wearing surgical masks. "I have no symptoms whatsoever," I tried to explain, but the siren of the ambulance that sped to the front of the hotel drowned out my protestations. The back door opened to reveal three fellow American passengers from my flight. I climbed in, and we drove two hours in darkness.
At 3 a.m., we arrived at a rural motel complex. Each of us was assigned to a single room and handed a letter. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope you have had a good trip to China," it read without a hint of irony. "In order to combat H1N1 you will stay at the Fengxian Medical Observation and execution institution for these special days. Stay at your observation room, no come out of your room. This temporary separation is for your family and friends' happiness and health. You will find quality services here. Have a nice time at this special moment."
As this doctor acknowledges later in the article, influenza pandemics are something to be worried about. But he does a nice job breaking down why China's interpretation of swift and precise action are both antiquated and off-the-mark.
It is important for H1N1 not to take off in China. The sanitary conditions here leave a lot to be desired.
I remember being dumbfounded when, getting my first medical check examination for my work visa in China, there was no soap in the hospital bathroom for the patrons to wash their hands. So you can imagine the state of the rest of society if hospitals can't even muster up the energy to provide soap dispensers.
Saying that, locking up foreigners who were on the same plane as someone who tested positive for H1N1 doesn't seem to be a proportionate response to this situation.