Sunday, August 02, 2009

What Should Travelers to Asia Expect this Summer?

Do you plan to travel to Asia this summer? If so, be prepared to have your temperature taken on airplanes, at customs, or in hotels. (In some hotels, you're not even welcome if you freshly landed from the U.S.) Why? Because many Asian governments have implemented strict regulations to control the spread of the swine flu (H1N1 Flu), and officials pay special attention to travelers from the U.S.

When I went to Singapore in June for an annual book fair, I was surprised to see all the flight attendants wearing masks. As soon as I walked to customs, my temperature was taken. At the book fair, all visitors were asked to fill out a form with their travel routes and contact information. I said I didn’t have a phone number in Singapore because I'd just come from New York -- and suddenly there were five people asking me when I had arrived. I realized I shouldn’t have said that and just told them, “Don’t worry about where I came from.” The next day I read in the local newspaper that two passengers on a flight from New York to Singapore had swine flu (luckily, it was a different airline). Then I realized why people were so concerned when they heard I was from New York. Two weeks later, a Singapore publisher told me that they had to cancel a trip to the U.S. in November. They'd registered for a national foreign language conference a year before, but Singapore government discourages all delegations from traveling to the U.S.

Then I learned friends in the U.S. who'd traveled to Beijing and Shanghai had similar experiences. Before they got off the airplane, their temperature was taken by health officials wearing outfits like space suits. Wherever my friends went, they told people they'd been in China for more than seven days even though they'd arrived just a day or two earlier, because the Chinese government warns citizens that seven days is the critical spread period. One of my friends went to China to visit her hospitalized father, but after four days the hospital didn’t allow her back, even after her complete test for swine flu was negative. I even heard that some American high school students went to China for the summer study program and couldn’t stay in the Beijing hotel they'd originally booked because the hotel worried someone had swine flu. Some publishers in Beijing also told me that they had to cancel their trips in the U.S. because of swine flu worries.

Now I am back in China, and I didn’t experience the same precautions as I did on the plane to Singapore. Very few flight attendants wore masks, and nobody came on the airplane to take temperatures. But we all had to fill out a very detailed health form. Besides questions about our health condition and contact information, we were asked where we'd been in the past seven days and where we'd be in the next seven days. There are automatic temperature gauges set up on the route to customs, so everyone had their temperature taken as they walked through. As soon as I was back home, everyone asked me how serious the swine flu was in New York and if I knew anyone who got it. Then I saw signs in public places and restaurants about how to prevent swine flu.

Why are China and other Asian countries so sensitive about swine flu, and why do they believe so many people in the U.S. have it? What role have media played in this anti-swine flu campaign? This reminds me how U.S. media reported on the Sichuan earthquake last year; the stories we heard in the U.S. were so different from the ones told in China. And now Chinese people are experiencing the same. They believe what the media tells them about swine flu in the U.S. and worry that travelers from the U.S. will bring it to their country!

Nevertheless, don’t be discouraged by my experiences. All I want to say is don’t be surprised when your temperature is taken or you're asked to fill out that long form about your personal health condition and travel plans! Enjoy your trip to Asia!