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Shanghai surprise: All aboard the quarantine express

By 5 June 2009 One Comment
Photo by Hudson Lockett

Papers, please: Foreign detainees en route undisclosed location | Photo by Hudson Lockett

It was May 29, and my plane, American Airlines Flight 289, had just landed in Shanghai. I was eager to breathe fresh air, but the Chinese government had other plans. About a dozen public health officials in white biohazard suits, facemasks and plastic goggles boarded the plane, scanning passengers’ foreheads with thermometer guns.

My headshot confirmed that I was fever-free. But when seven officials began crowding around a passenger two rows ahead of me, I mumbled to no one in particular: ”I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

An hour later a flight attendant broke the news: Business-class passenger 10D had a fever and “could not be ruled out” for H1N1 influenza. All business-class passengers and part of the economy section would be quarantined until the test results returned the next morning. If he tested positive, all 60 of us would be detained for seven days’ observation.

Since mid-May, travelers to China showing even a slightly elevated temperatures have been quarantined for up to seven days, according to a recent story in The Washington Post. The Chinese government is eager to be seen as decisively proactive following the withering international criticism it absorbed in 2003 for trying to keep the outbreak of the deadly SARS virus under wraps.

While Chinese medical authorities claimed otherwise, at least 100 people were being treated for the disease in military hospitals alone, The New York Times reported in April of that year. Originating in Asia, SARS killed 774 of the over 8,000 cases eventually documented in the world, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. While early coverage of H1N1 prompted international apprehension, further research and reportage has suggested a mortality rate on the order of a typical influenza virus.

Meanwhile, back on Flight 289, Chinese officials asked the quarantined sections to stay seated while the rest of the passengers disembarked. Individuals allowed to freely deplane had breathed the same air as everyone else on the plane. In fact, the man in seat 10D had even worn a preventive face mask similar to those sported by some of the swine-flu marshals who were now in charge of our fates.

As we left the plane, I befriended Curtis Stallard, an architect from Los Angeles. “It’s like we’re in a movie,” he said, as we walked up the bus stairs past yet another man in white. We then found it hard not to laugh as the officials spent an hour struggling to find a bus driver willing to don a full biohazard suit to chauffeur “the living dead.” When officialdom finally found an operator, he seemed bent on putting the pedal to the metal to minimize his contact with us.

Two hours later, our mobile leper colony pulled off the main road and headed for a cubic glass building. It all looked very promising until we took a sudden left-hand turn into the parking lot of a dilapidated hotel staffed entirely by people in white uniforms. Inside the lobby our reception proved surpassingly strange: Officials in hazmat suits confiscated our passports, dropping them into a plastic grocery bag, before showing us to our rooms in a check-in ritual complicated by both language and biohazard barriers.

Judging by the documents posted on the wall of my room, the government had more than a few blanks left to fill in its anti-flu precautions. The instructions stated that I was to be quarantined in “room ___, ___ hotel, from ____ to _____” for the protection of the greater good. As per the order left by ”implementing agency: ______”, if I did have any symptoms, I ought to report them by calling the telephone number “_____”.

A knock on the open door alerted me to a cautious woman in white who delivered my dinner at arm’s length. ”I don’t have the plague, you know,” I said, grabbing the plastic bag from her timidly outstretched hand. Unknotting the bag, I discovered something on the order of a high school science experiment. You can hardly fault me for not eating the strangely misshapen oranges and brownish-black wontons smiling up from clear green broth.

I opened a bottle of water for dinner and fell back on my bed. The phone proved useless, but the Internet was up and running with no problem – if they wanted to stop the spread of news about this sort of thing they weren’t doing a terribly thorough job. With help from outside contacts I established my location: the Baolongjinfumen Hotel, two hours north of Shanghai International Airport.

In the halls, the ex-passengers flaunted the recommended quarantine guidelines by mingling freely, smoking cigars and downing beers. If the entirety of the guest list hadn’t been late for this or that meeting elsewhere in China, it would’ve been a decent party.

I found Stallard in his room using Skype, an online telephone substitute. His assistant in Shanghai was talking to a woman at American Airlines, who knew nothing of our situation but was pleased to inform callers that the flight had arrived 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

If Mr. 10D tested negative for H1N1, I would be able to get to Beijing on time for the start of my journalism study abroad program, so I decided to hit the sack after our checked luggage arrived around midnight.

At 7 a.m., a knock on the door revealed two women smiling at me – biohazard suits shockingly absent. The younger one held out my passport, a gesture I took to mean my emancipation was imminent. In celebration, I ate the expensive-looking chocolate muffins that came with the room. I figured the government owed me as much.

Outside the hotel I was accosted by a cheerful woman who informed me she was with China’s Center for Disease Control. She wanted my written recommendation and a picture, so I obliged: “Staff was courteous and prompt. A++ Would quarantine with again.”

As we posed together, she smiled and threw up a peace sign as another official held up her pink camera. When mine took its place, however, she seemed less than pleased. Apparently, pictures that weren’t going to her boss to make her look good weren’t worth taking.

As we made our departure, I received a certificate of health good for passage on any plane headed to Beijing. Replete with a circular red stamp from the Chinese government, it was housed in a card with embossed gold script: “Especially for You.”

Sometimes it’s nice to know a government really cares about all the little details.

One Comment »

  • curtis said:

    Hey Hudson,

    What a laugh, just thinking about it all over again…Now, it seems very funny. BTW, great job, I found the writting clever and entertaining A+.

    Looking forward to your next piece…and have a safe trip home!
    Curtis Stallard

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