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If Pigs Could Fly: Traveling in the Time of Swine Flu

New America Media, Commentary, Sandip Roy Posted: May 04, 2009

KATHMANDU - One day before the Maoist-led coalition government fell in Nepal, the front page photo in The Himalayan Times, the leading English daily, was of three men wearing white masks. Nepal wasnt sure if its fledgling democracy process was going to implode, but it was determined to keep swine flu out.

As our aircraft touched down in Tribhuvan airport, we were surrounded by immigration officials in masks. The woman listlessly sweeping the empty arrivals hall was wearing a mask. Even the four guys sitting in the back of the currency exchange booth playing cards (and having zero contact with anyone getting off any airplane) had their masks on.

Are you from America? asked the immigration official. As I had flown across the Pacific from San Francisco to Kathmandu, I heard that question over and over again. Are you from America? Have you been to America or Mexico in the last seven days?

Usually Americans get to ask that question. Have you been to a malarial country? Have you been to a yellow fever zone? America was where you went to get away from strange diseases borne by parasites and mosquitos. Sniffing dogs at the airport make sure we dont bring in some illegal alien kari-leaf or mango that might puncture our bubble. Swine flu has reversed the equation. As we deplaned for the transit lounge in Seoul, Americans filled out questionnaires about coughs and runny noses (with a hefty fine if you lied).

Asian countries had all mobilized quickly, having learned from their battles with SARS and avian flu. Hong Kong has never taken down their thermal systems to monitor temperature, says Yuen Ying Chan, director of media studies at the University of Hong Kong. But its not just gadgets. People are just more prepared psychologically.

No one complained about inconvenience, even as the Chinese government quarantined hotel guests and workers. The Politburo called an emergency meeting and announced the discussion, an unprecedented step says Chan. SARS taught them to respond faster, says Chan.

Even low-tech Nepal thinks its ready for the swine flu. Face masks have always been popular because of the pollution in Kathmandu. Now they are even more popular. In Nepals touristy Darbar Square, people roamed around wearing masks, occasionally pulling them aside for a smoke break.

We have really beautiful masks with embroidery and in different colors, says Nepalese TV journalist Saurav Dhakal. No one is sure whether a hand-knitted mask can really keep out the swine flu virus but its really handy for your girlfriend to wear when she is riding pillion on your scooter through Kathmandus dusty streets. It looks elegant, keeps out the dust and is a good disguise, says Dhakal. People cant tell who she is.

More than panic, its theater abetted by 24/7 television images. From a phalanx of toilet cleaners scrubbing airport toilets with disinfectants to immigration officials suddenly looking like they had stepped out of a hospital emergency room, its good drama.

Americans, on the other hand, arent used to their new role in the script. Its not like we flew in from Mexico, one said to another as we queued up to get thermometers stuck in our ears in Seouls Inchon airports transit lounge. But the sign made it clear Both Mexico and the United States were regarded as swine flu zones. Even as the United States tries to erect border fences to separate the two, the swine flu has been a reminder that we arent that separate at all. In the rest of the worlds eyes, we are one landmass. In a sense, in the eyes of the men and women in green hospital masks in airports around the world, we are all Mexicans now.

In the end we were all allowed in to Nepal with stern warnings to report to Tribhuvan hospital at the first sign of a cold. I was relieved, although I still wasnt sure if I could sneeze safely.

It's not unlike how youd feel when relatives and friends finally procured that American visa and cleared immigration and showed up in the arrivals area in New York or San Francisco, pushing their luggage cart, red-eyed and bleary, squinting at all the faces, trying to find yours. That sense of relief that they had made it through, that some dour visa officer hadnt just stopped them in their tracks, was palpable.

But maybe theres a silver lining, even to pandemics.

As you land in Seoul, New Delhi or Kathmandu, and the signs around you herald your arrival from the land of pandemic flu, you could also read it as saying, Americans, Welcome to the Rest of the World - your era of splendid isolation is over.

I thought that would never happen. At least not until pigs could fly.

Related Articles:

Journey into a Paranoid Mexico

How NAFTA Helped Spread Swine Flu

Swine Flu Is No Excuse for Ignorant Behavior

As Swine Flu Spreads, So Does Backlash Against Mexico

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