Thursday, June 4, 2009

China blogging in the age of H1N1 influenza

Greetings! This and the following China-related blog entries are posted here by the kind intervention of my friend and former boss Carter-san. Bloglines and Flickr have recently been blocked by the Great Firewall of China (the national proxy server by which the Chinese government blocks access to certain parts of the web) and I thought that I’d have to give up on China blogging altogether. As it is, you’ll have to wait for the pictures until they unblock Flickr, which I use to host the pictures you see on this blog - I was able to upload my first day’s worth of pictures, and then access was cut off.

For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I’m posting some odds and ends of pictures over there. For the rest of you, this will be a test of my ability to describe what I see, which is, after all, what I do for a living. It is possible that some of these sites will be unblocked after tomorrow’s 20th anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square Incident has blown over, but you really never know. So, all hail Carter-san; and thanks.

I arrived in Beijing last Friday night, after a comfortable flight on ANA (and oh, how I love the Japanese airlines). Seven hours to Narita, with a three-hour layover during which I absent-mindedly changed about three times as much money as I needed for the bowl of udon I had for lunch - though the truth is that I can just spend my yen at home if I like, so that’s convenient enough. Then two and a half hours to Beijing. The twin themes of the trip were pork and swine flu: it’s harder to avoid pork in Japan than in China, so I had to pass on one of the ANA meals because it was a ham sandwich, and I had my temperature taken by infrared sensor twice in Japan and twice in China, as part of H1N1 influenza screening - and I didn’t even legally enter Japan. Both countries have public health forms to fill in on entering the country; I didn’t need to do the one for Japan, but the one for China asks you to list all the places you’ve been to in the last seven days, along with a lot of other information about symptoms and health. You’re also asked to give extremely detailed contact information for the next seven days after arrival. If any of us on the flight had had H1N1 influenza, the Chinese public health authorities already have a very detailed record of who might have come in contact with them.

When we landed in Beijing (at a huge, sparkling glass-and-steel terminal that I didn’t recognize AT ALL) the PA system announced that we should all stay in our seats, while a team of doctors came on board to conduct a health inspection. This sounded potentially interminable but actually ended up being very quick: six uniformed people wearing face masks came onto the airplane and took everybody’s temperature with an infrared sensor. The sensor is a sort of gun-like device, aimed, disconcertingly, at the center of the forehead; the slightly threatening nature of the thing is somewhat mitigated by its being colored baby pink. As we passed through the various control points of the border-crossing procedure I noticed several viewing stations equipped with infrared cameras which were connected to video displays: another way to monitor for elevated body temperature.

It was at once faintly invasive, in a vaguely Big Brother-ish way, and also a stunningly efficient, high-tech (and non-invasive) way of checking for one of the signs of flu. Nobody had to give a blood sample or undergo any other tests, and the whole border procedure went very, very smoothly. China has identified something like forty or fifty cases of H1N1 flu, of which only one, in Guangzhou, is a domestic transmission; the others have come from overseas, principally from the US. It does occur to me that given the emphasis on the monitoring of international airports, seaports and border checkpoints, China’s more porous land borders might go under-checked, particularly those in remote regions with largely minority populations and/or subsistence lifestyles. Similarly, rural cases of H1N1 influenza, should they develop, might be less likely to be identified in regions where health services are less well-funded or less technologically well-supplied. Still, as a display of centralized state organization and efficiency in the interests of public health (to say nothing of technological development), it was all extremely impressive.

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