Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Infection Control Theatre

Much has been made in the news about what people call "security theatre", those things that are done at airports and in subways etc to make people *feel* safer but that don't really have much of an impact on their actual safety. The Chinese government has not done quite as much in the realm of security theatre, but they have a corner on the "infection control theatre" genre. WIth the global fears over the H1N1(a) virus, the Chinese government, which has memories of the SARS crisis, avian flu, and other health scares frontmost in its mind, has decided to leap into action and do everything in its power to prevent the spread of this disease.

Among the things that the government has done is to festoon the streets with posters instructing people how to avoid the virus (interestingly, most of the posters show H1N1 sufferers as being red headed foreigners), enforce body temperature controls at the entrances to hotels, hospitals and schools, and require visitors arriving from overseas to go through several temperature checks at the airport, sometimes even on the arriving aircraft itself. As part of this last control, all passengers must fill out a quarantine form that includes all the usual demographic information (name, country of citizenship, passport number, contact info) but also flight number, seat number, and city where you were coming from. All that is fine, up to a point. But what really is bizarre is that someone actually phones each and every person who lands at Beijing airport (from certain places, at least) the day after they land to check on how they're feeling. When we had visitors last week, I got a phone call from the Changping district hospital asking about the visitors' well being. At first I could not understand why the Changping hospital was calling, since we live nowhere near there, so when they called for the second time that day (90 minutes after the first call) I asked them, and learned that they had mistakenly believed that our address was in that district. The mistake corrected, I then got a call from our district hospital asking the same questions about our guests' temperatures.

But that's not the best part. When J2 returned from the US on Sunday, he also filled out the forms, giving his own mobile phone number as his means of contact. Sure enough, yesterday morning on the way to work his phone rang, and someone on the other end started yammering away at him in Chinese. He kept responding "hello, hello, do you speak English, I'm American, etc" but the person on the other end could not speak anything but Chinese. The number calling him was the same number that called me last week to check on our guests' health, so we knew it was the hospital, and I offered to speak to them, but J2 insisted that, if they're going to try to pursue this ridiculous policy with foreign visitors, they had better learn to get some foreign language speakers on the job. The person hung up, but then phoned back a few minutes later! J2 did the exact same routine, not even trying to speak Chinese with the person, who eventually hung up again. But then he phoned back EIGHT MORE TIMES, at no point actually using an English speaker, even though they knew that he is American. How useful can this process possibly be?