Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Swine Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

So, it's been an insanely busy semester, making it very hard to maintain a consistent blogging regimen.  But things are finally starting to settle down, so maybe I can share a few things with you.

On the morning of October 25th, I left Ellenville, New York, up in the Catskills, where the New York State Communication Association's annual meeting had been held, after delivering a keynote address for them that Friday, and I drove back home, unpacked and then packed again, and headed over to Newark that evening, to catch a flight to India, via Lufthansa, with a stopover in Frankfurt.  I was asked to lead a workshop on general semantics and media ecology for the new Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences in the city of Baroda (aka Vadodara) in the state of Gujarat.  And I'll write more about all that another time.

For now, I just want to address the topic of sickness and health.  Frankly, I'm not a seasoned traveler, and it never occurred to me that I needed to make any medical preparations for the trip until someone else brought it up.  That led to a bit of a scramble, as I got several shots, a Tetanus booster, Hepatitis A, and a flu shot (regular flu, H1N1 not being available), and a prescription for Malorone, a drug used to prevent Malaria!  I had to start taking the Malorone before I left, and continue for 7 days after (and it really did a number on me for that last week).

So anyway, having gotten appropriately medicated, I was off to India, taking a Lufthansa flight of 8 hours to Frankfurt, a 5 hour layover there, and then another flight of 8 hours, arriving in Mumbai at 3:30 AM on Tuesday, October 27.  So, exhausted and totally out of sync, I was on the immigration line to get into India, holding my passport, complete with visa (another last minute scramble as no one told me I needed one until just before the trip), and a form I had to fill out.

The form asked if I was from an, get this, Infected Country!!!!  And it included a number of questions about swine flu/H1N1, asking if I was exposed to it and/or were exhibiting any symptoms.  This struck me as a bit odd, as here in the US it's pretty much accepted that the swine flu is with us, it's not seen as all that big of a deal by most of us (my elderly mother, on the other hand, is easily frightened by the hype that she hears on the news, which most of us are inured to I believe), there aren't all that many cases, the flu itself isn't all that severe, less so that the regular flu and all.

So how strange it was to think of the United States as an "Infected Country," after all, what an odd and paranoid sounding label to use!  It's a bit of a metaphor, if you think about it, as we generally recognize that a person who is infected with a disease is diseased, ill, sick, or at least a carrier.  But in what sense can a country be infected?  Is a country just like a person, a body?  Can a country be diseased, ill, sick, or a carrier, in the way that a person is?  If one person has the swine flu, is the entire country infected?  If not, how many does it take?  Does the size of the country and its population make a difference?

Clearly, the Indian authorities were guided by this metaphor, as they had a camera set up and aimed at the people in the immigration line at the airport.  Apparently, it was a thermal camera, and wouldn't you know it, after training it on me, they pulled me out of the line and told me to go sit on the side.  I was far from the only one, I should add, and I sat next to a fellow from France who had been pulled out right before me.

They explained that the camera registered me as hot.  And this was not hot in a good sense.  They said that it indicated that I had a fever, which is the first symptom of swine flu.  So they stuck thermometers under our arms to take our temperatures.  The French guy was ahead of me, and his reading was over a 100 Farenheit, hot but not necessarily a fever, but they said it was.  He asked what that meant, and they said they'd take his temperature again in 15 minutes, and if he was still hot, they have ambulances waiting to take him to the hospital for further tests, and to isolate and quarantine him if he has the swine flu.  He asked if he could just fly back to France instead.  They said no.

Did I mention the medic (not sure if the guy was a nurse or what, don't think he was a doctor) was wearing one of those masks to filter the air.  Weird, being treated like some kind of contagious leper.

So my temperature was 99.6, and they said that was a fever.  I said, WHAT!?!?!?!   COME ON!!!!!   That's just one degree above normal.  They said that the plane is cold, so the normal temperature coming off of it is 97 degrees, so that means I have a fever.  I had never heard of such a thing.  I was going to say that I wasn't at all cold on the plane, but I was afraid that they would take that as confirmation that I had a fever.

They gave me the same line about retaking my temperature in 15 minutes.  At this point I got very agitated.  I started to speak loudly about how walking through the terminal with a heavy carry-on at 3:30 in the morning, with a bum knee that I had, made me hot, and how I'm normally hotter than average.  And after all, I had absolutely no cold and flu symptoms, not a one (the medic said fever was the first one to show, and the others did not appear until later).  And who was going to get my baggage from the baggage claim?  And it was almost 4 in the morning and I had to meet someone for lunch at noon!  And then catch a flight that evening to Baroda!  To lead a 4-day workshop!  And I also told them that I had to get shots to come to India, and was taking antimalarial medication, and they're worried about me getting them sick????

I was, you might say, hot under the collar.  The medic advised me to calm down, as getting angry would raise my temperature, and wouldn't help when they took it again.  Grrrrrrrrrrr.  I couldn't help but wonder if this wasn't some payback for the way the United States (and western nations in general) treats people coming to us from abroad.  Maybe it wasn't arbitrary, but maybe they were taking advantage, latching on to the excuse to put us through the ringer.  I couldn't help but also think about what had happened at Ellis Island if, say tuberculosis was detected in an immigrant and they were sent back, but in that I always identified with the immigrants, as the child of immigrants, and not with the indigenous authorities.

So, I calmed myself down.  The chair I was sitting on had metal armrests, which were cool, so I placed my wrists against them.  The wall behind me was also cool, so I rested my bald spot against it (never thought there could be an advantage to hair loss).  I slowed my breathing, and relaxed.

The French guy got up and told the medic he was going to the restroom.  A little later, I did the same thing, and ran cold water over my wrists for 60 seconds, and then splashed cold water on my face.  When I came out, I mentioned it to my friend from France, and he said he had done the same thing.

Soon after, his temperature was down and they let him go, and soon after that mine was down below 99 and they let me go.

I finally got to my hotel room around 4:30 AM, and got a couple of hours of sleep before my luncheon.

Now for the ironic ending.  The day that I was leaving Baroda, there was a news report that Narendra Modi, the prime minister of the state of Gujarat, where Baroda is located you may recall, who had just returned from a visit to Russia, had the swine flu.  Here's the story:  Modi down with swine flu, Gujarat ministers fretHah!  I said, Serves him right!

Instant karma's gonna get you...


Bruce I. Kodish said...

Your account of the trip with the hassle at the Indian airport left me with a smile on my face. Which doesn't mean I was laughing at your misery! I'm glad you came back in such good shape and humor. You are a hearty soul!

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