Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Japan and swine flu hyper reactions

Well here I am, back in Japan for a week now. Time back home sure seemed to fly!

So before we even landed in Narita, we got smacked with the most recent pandemic that has swept the nation of Japan: swine flu hysteria. Note that the pandemic is not swine flu itself, which has been widely shown to be only about as strong as the seasonal flu and only has a few hundred cases worldwide, but the hysteric hyper over reactions to it I've witnessed everywhere.

In the plane they gave everyone in the plane a health survey to fill out along with the standard customs and disembarkation papers, which is ok enough I guess, but then the real fun started when the plane touched down. We were made to wait in our seats 30 minutes for a quarantine inspector to make it to our plane, at which time the less-than-comfortable-or-attractive masks were summarily passed out to all passengers (note: none of the stewardesses were wearing masks at any time, even during the inspection, so I assume that they at least realize the folly in all of this). Then the inspector comes through with an industrial-sized mask and a heat-sensing camera to check us all out. He checked our surveys one by one then gives us this sheet saying they'll call to check on us later.

Another half hour later we're out of the plane, and after showing the paper to the new makeshift quarantine gate it's reentry as usual... except for another camera crew and yet another accompanied by news staff trying to interview people on their "scary" bouts with the flu abroad. I'm sure they were sitting there for a while trying to get someone that was actually scared about the flu so they could put it on tv and spread baseless fear across the country. Looking around, we weren't the only ones that had shed their masks before even leaving the airport, so I'm imagining that most all of the people coming from abroad are much more cool-headed about things since they have not been exposed to said Japanese media scare-mongering.

2 days later, my girlfriend and I both separately got calls from the quarantine center asking us if we had any signs of the flu or anything. After I told the lady no, she said to call her if anything arose and that she'd waste her time again in another 10 days to call me and the hundreds of others that flew in.

Since getting back I've seen various reactions of people, with a strong delineation between those that read news elsewhere and those that get all their information locally. One friend told me that someone in her office that went to Hong Kong over Golden Week was told not to come into work for 10 days, and that he would be forced to use his own vacation days to do so. He was understandably upset. While I do find this disturbing, as 病休 (sick leave) is basically only used in Japan (by Japanese, at least) if you wind up in a hospital overnight I was not entirely surprised. I've heard other direct accounts that even people that are sent abroad for business trips at certain companies are forced to take a voluntary leave of absense upon returning on their own time.

I also ran across this story over at Japan Probe about university rules for travel on Golden Week, etc. This in from Waseda:

Student travel is forbidden, and students are told to avoid going out - especially to crowded places. The e-mail states that if one single human infection is confirmed in Japan, the whole school will be shut down.

One case in the country, and the whole school shuts down. Forget international travel, they won't even allow national traveling, say to visit family? Geez, over-react much?

So you'd imagine from all this that there's been at least a few cases in Japan thus far, right? Well just the other day there was finally a bonafide case of swine flu in the news. 3 Japanese coming back from Canada contracted it, so the reaction was to quarantine them and about 50 others on the plane, putting them up in a hotel. The account of one of the guys stuck in the hotel were just incredulous to me:

A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official asked the man not to leave his the room, except for meals, to wear a sanitary mask and not to touch anything if he had to leave the room.

Hotel employees have been prohibited from entering the travelers’ rooms, so the man cannot get room service, he said.

He said he has to wash his clothes in the bathroom of his room. He puts used towels inside a plastic bag and leaves them outside the room to be picked up by a hotel employee, he added.

For lunch Saturday, he said he had curry rice in what appeared to be a conference room. In the room, about 15 round tables were set at intervals of about three meters apart, apparently to prevent quarantined people from coming into contact with each other and spreading the virus they may possibly be infected with, he said. He sits alone at a table to eat, he said.

For dinner that day, he said he had steak.

He was asked to take his temperature in the morning, afternoon and evening.

A doctor visited him Saturday evening and told him he showed no flu symptoms, he said.

The man said he was in an unfortunate situation, but quarantining him and the other travelers was the only way to prevent the virus from spreading.

A certain phrase comes to mind that I think sums up the whole situation rather nicely...

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."


Ojisanjake said...

It's a shame this kind of reaction can't be focussed on dangerous things in Japan like AIDS and STD's...

J said...

I remember hearing that bit from Waseda... so now that there have been cases confirmed in Japan, did they ever even close down?

Bridget Beaver said...

It's just a new excuse for some people to be xenophobic. In Sano (Tochigi-ken) The mayor would not allow a group of high school students from their sister city in Wisconsin to visit for fear that they would bring the swine flu to Sano. I've lost so much respect for him and the Board of Education there.
I was also on a train back from Tokyo going into Tochigi, where I live, and two women blatantly stated in front of me that they didn't want to sit near me on the train because I might be carrying the shin-gata infruenza.
You are absolutely right about the media and their worthless fear mongering. It's so awful.

darg said...

Ojisanjake: ha, yeah they probably should do something about STDs... from what I hear 女子高生 in Shibuya are about as low as it gets in that department, and judging by conversations I've had I would say condom use is on the low side.

J: Very good question - anyone know the answer?

Bridget: Given the public sentiment, I'd say that even if the mayor wanted to go forward with things he'd probably be just about lynched for letting things forward, so I don't know how much I'd hold it against him personally but yeah that's pretty stupid.

As for the women... sounds like a classic case of small town mentality. They probably just came back from tea with the mayor or something. Like you say, just this week's excuse.