Monday, May 18, 2009

Swine Fever Fever

If you have a cold or are "a lady of a certain age", don't whatever you do travel to Japan just now. You won't like what will happen to you. And neither will those around you, as you all find yourselves in quarantine for 7 days. Oh yes, it's swine fever fever all over again.

I got a note Sunday morning from United that my Tokyo flight was delayed by 50 minutes. I was a bit surprised as the weather was set clear and sunny both ends of the route, so just put it down to the normal on-going decay of United's fleet of 747s. ("Ah, no, sorry, that particular model is out of warranty now, and anyway with that mileage on the clock what do you expect? Stuff's bound to be breaking down and falling off.")

It was only when on-board that there was an announcement as to the real reason for the slippage: new health checks in Tokyo! Oh. Joy. In addition to the usual immigration and customs documentation, we now had to fill out a hastily printed (and hastily translated by the look of it) medical history form basically asking, "do you now, or have you ever, had a temperature?" Well hopefully I have some sort of temperature otherwise I'm dead, but I'll let that pass. It also asked if you were on any suspicious drugs. No, not methamphetamine, but rather anti-virals, anti-colds or I suppose anti-swine medication.

In true Japanese form, such things are not to be taken lightly. Failure to pass either the written or the infra-red exam - and more on that in a minute - will mean being in medical quarantine for 7 days. But on the plus side, you'll be accompanied by those seated within a 2 meter radius of your seat just so they can be doubly sure to have locked up all the likely suspects. Yes, it's pointless, but at least it's thoroughly pointless.

12 hours later we pull up to the gate at Narita. We are ordered to stay seated. We obey. A posse of booted-and-suited medical staff come on board in order to deal with the unclean load of foreigners who are now cluttering up their nice clean, sanitary airport. Not only are they wearing face masks but they have eye screens, nylon bunny suits, latex gloves and small rubber boots. Somewhere a British MP is probably dreaming of such things, but if so they were in First Class getting a private examination. We just wanted to get off the bloody plane.

First off, one of them whips out an infra-red camera and starts scanning the entire aircraft, row by row, looking a bit like some sort of post-apocalypse photographer trying to record the mayhem laid out before them. Heaven help you if you were a bit menopausal at the time because you'd really have a hard time explaining to some poor student why you didn't have swine flu but rather were pumping heat into the plane because of an untimely hormonal imbalance. English wasn't their first language, nor even the second; I think it ranked somewhere down at 47 just after that African tounge clicking thing. The poor girl checking the form was therefore running her finger over each and every line, slowly & meticulously checking every single entry, including seat number, destination and whether or not you were going to escape into the wilds of Japan to "go traveling about" as it put it. Engaging in a dialogue on any point whatsoever would undoubtedly lead you straight to medical jail, albeit with much bowing and apologising, so it's better just to sit still and stay cool. Literally.

Fortunately I passed, apparently chilled enough to be allowed entry despite the steam now coming from my ears at being stuck here for 40 minutes and missing the bus I planned to catch. I was given a green piece of paper that seemingly signified I was in rude health. And I quote, "This document is to certify that you have passed quarantine inspection". Well, good then. However, not so fast. "If you have any symptom such as coughing, you are requested to wear a mask for preventing the spread of infection. These requests are made to protect you as well as your family." Given my family isn't in Japan, "not so much" on this one.

Apart from now now having to stand in another line in order to wave the green bit of paper at yet more officials, I could now sneeze free from fear of incarceration, cough without concern. However, I should perhaps point out that standing in a corridor for 10 minutes, packed cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of other people from around the world, to hand in said bit of paper to said officials probably exposed me to even more risk of catching the flu that anything that I was going to see on the plane. Sigh.

No idea how long they will stick with this, but it's still a big story here so I expect it will be a while. It's not being applied across the board, just on flights arriving from countries with known cases of swine flu. On the plus side, no one yet seems to have realised that seasonal flu has way more impact than the swine kind so hopefully this is just temporary and won't become a much loved feature of every trip here. And at least it's being done very, very politely. Woe betide the poor traveller arriving into Paris if the French authorities ever think "that looks fun" and decide to join in. Doesn't bear thinking about.

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