It’s Not About the Pig

In the Hutong
Avoiding the Radar
1819 hrs

Standing in line at the gate at Narita, I was talking with another flier about China’s aggressive screening for H1N1 among arriving passengers, and the seemingly draconian quarantine measures. Why, he wondered, given that the virus seemed to be just like any other flu, was China treating this so seriously?

It’s a fair question, and I am not sure there is a single, simple answer. There are good medical reasons, for example to protect the people from a new virus about which not much is really known and that, once into China’s population, could mutate into something more devastating.

There are good political reasons. The nation’s health and sanitary bodies want to demonstrate that they can (and will) protect the country from pandemic. China wants to show the world that it can be as tough as any other country when it comes to quarantine laws.

And, after SARS and Avian flu, they are happy to grab the chance to point out, however subtly, that other countries harbor and incubate scary pathogens as well.

But I also think there is something deeply practical going on. Whatever the medical, political, or perceptual reasons behind this costly quarantine, of arguably greater importance is the activity itself. H1N1 may prove to be a mild pandemic, but the spectre of far more virulent pathogens lurks in its shadows.

What we are witnessing is a full-scale dress rehearsal for “the big one,” an effort to develop and test the people, equipment, procedures, and policies China would need to face and overcome a killer pandemic. Disasters need drills, as any first responder who cares about his job will tell you, and the more technical and logistically complex the response, the more practice needed.

In that sense, H1N1 is a Godsend: it is an excuse for China to push the alarm button and see what works, what doesn’t work, and what needs to be improved for the time when we have The Real Thing.

There are those who would suggest that when The Real Thing comes all travel and trade will be shut down anyway. Early in the crisis, that may be the case. But at some point, the total shutdown of commerce and travel will be impractical, if not disastrous. China – and to a similar extent, Japan – are looking for ways to run an effective quarantine process so that the doors can be reopened as soon as possible after an outbreak.

So the next time you have to sit on a plane and wait for someone to come aboard and take your temperature, recognize that you are taking place in a drill for what could be the largest scourge humanity has ever faced. Damned right they’re serious.