Chinese authorities have been conducting temperature checks on incoming international flights for almost two months now. So last night, when I boarded a Shanghai-bound flight in Tokyo, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to be informed that the plane’s arrival would be delayed for a few minutes by a temperature check of all passengers. It goes something like this: the flight lands, taxis, and stops at the gate. Along the way, passengers are told to remain in their seats and not . A moment or two later, in a scene reminiscent of the opening moments of Star Wars (when stormtroopers burst into the rebel craft, firing lasers, followed by Darth Vader), teams in biohazard suits emerge at the front of the plane, and work the aisles, firing laser thermometers at the foreheads of seated passengers.
So what happens when this very efficient, mostly innocuous process finds a fever?
Last night, I was seated in 13G. Next to me, in 13F, was a thirty-ish Chinese man. A woman in a biohazard suit fired her laser at my forehead (normal), and then his. “Thirty-seven-point-three,” she announced to the person in the biohazard suit behind her (that’s 99.14° F). She then fired the laser again, confirmed the result, and the biohazard suit behind her wrapped a sterile sheath around an oral digital thermometer, and jammed it into 13F’s mouth. Sure enough: 37.3°. At this, the two biohazard suits waved at a taller biohazrd suit in the other aisle, and the three parties retreated to the front of the plane. Sensing a story, or at least a blog post, I turned to 13F. Before I could ask the obvious question, he answered it:
“I’m fine,” he said with a nervous smile. “Nothing to worry about. Don’t worry.”
The three biohazard suits returned, and the tallest one – located on the other aisle – requested 13F’s passport and health declaration form (the latter, a simple declaration of current health, phone, and address). As he disappeared with the information, one of the other biohazrd suits handed 13F an N-95 surgical mask, instructed him as to how he should wear it, and explained that he’d soon be taken for further evaluation.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice the disdainful and frustrated looks of nearby passengers who couldn’t see 13F, but who could surely see me – Mr. 13G in the aisle seat. All in all, not an entirely pleasant sensation, being mistaken for a Plague Carrier. As for 13F – he wasn’t commenting. I tried.
After a couple of minutes, the biohazard suits returned, beckoned for 13F, and led him off the plane. I didn’t expect to see him again (except in quarantine), but, in fact, I found him seated outside the door of the quarantine and inspection offices, just behind the immigration check, looking like nothing so much as a naughty student awaiting an appointment with the headmaster. And wearing a face mask (a friend observes: “in this case, the face mask being the modern Shanghai equivalent of the scarlet letter“).
The health check folks were careful to obtain my phone and address in Shanghai, and then they let me go. Hopefully, 13F has nothing more interesting than a head cold, and he and I (and everyone within three rows of us) won’t be joining the growing ranks of the quarantine bloggers.
[Addendum: proper soundtrack to this post, and my week, here.]