A Convulsive Expulsion of Hot Air

By William J. Furney
The Bali Times

I would rather catch swine flu than go around wearing a face mask. That’s what one man was doing in Bintang supermarket in Seminyak the other evening.

This short, fortysomething of Chinese ethnicity looked ridiculous among dozens of carefree (and free-faced) shoppers. He was saying to the world: “I’m precious.” No, you’re a senseless lemming; and a wimp.

The swine flu story has been whipped up by an ever-frenzied media and a World Health Organisation (WHO) that really should know better, with its on-again, off-again pandemic issuances over an illness that in most cases is about as severe as everyday flu.

This could rapidly be the organisation that cried wolf. Swine flu doesn’t even get a mention on the WHO’s list of “Health topics” at www.who.int (bird flu is there), but is subclassified under “influenza,” where it says under a heading “Pandemic (H1N1) 2009”: “On the basis of available evidence and expert assessments of the evidence, the scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic have been met.” They might try adding a dose of sense to that.

At the checkout, the shopping Chinese (2-litre Pocari Sweat, toothpaste, Pringles, shampoo and conditioner), knocks over two boxes of candies on display and stoops down and picks the individual treats off the floor, swiping the grubby tiles as he does – GERM ALERT!

Indonesia’s peculiar health minister has latched on, unsurprisingly, to the worldwide alarm over H1N1, and even as the WHO issued an advisory last week that thermal scanners and other flu-detecting equipment at ports of entry were redundant in seeking out swine flu sufferers, Siti Fadilah Supari nonetheless insisted such equipment would stay in place.

The minister, who is known for her outré opinions – such as that some pathogens are brewed by Western pharmaceutical companies so that they can profit from the sale of drugs they make to combat the illnesses, including in massive-population countries like Indonesia – also repeated her worry that foreigners, especially Australians, were bringing swine flu into this country.

So as the minister dreams up new ways to protect the nation – her most recent suggestion that visitors to Bali be required to wear face masks for three days was widely derided, and flopped – I hope she will add a dash of sagacity to the thinking pot. However, with the chasing down and sedating of a New Zealand man last week, when he attempted to flee quarantine at Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar, lost nerves continue to trump logic.

The purchasing Chinese proffers a card to pay, but the ever-diligent (only in matters of bank cards) Bintang clerk refuses, pointing to a sign that says the amount must be over Rp100,000, and this isn’t.

In parts of perennially chary China, we have witnessed in recent months imprudent scenes of people held in their rooms as entire hotels were placed in quarantine because someone sneezed. Planes full of passengers came in for similar treatment – for a condition and situation that didn’t require treatment.

For sure flu pandemics of the past have been disastrous, wiping out millions in a short time. But we are eons more medically advanced than when they occurred in the early years of the last century, with vast arsenals of medications now available to battle bugs.

It would therefore pay to keep our heads instead of losing them, as many are doing.

“I’m sorry,” comes the muffled sound from behind the paying Chinese’s mask (with an anxious giggle and spasmodic contortion of body), which seems overly large for his small, round head and almost reaches his eyes. With this latest setback, you can almost see his temperature rise. (An aside: I suspect sensor heat readings at the airport here are several degrees higher than normal, due to the unaccustomed heat new arrivals find themselves in, very long queues at immigration and visa desks and having to deal with officials of, shall we say, questionable morality.)

However, pity the poor pigs (a favourite beast of mine). With a new report out in the Journal of General Virology, these admirable creatures don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Now it turns out that humans can infect them with the swine flu virus! What’s a porker to do? Perhaps as an intra-species scorecard, we can have: H1P1.

Swine get a bad rap among the research fraternity, however, as it’s believed they are “mix-and-match breeding vessels for dangerous new viruses, as they are able to simultaneously house human, avian and swine strains,” according to one report.

All the more reason not to eat them, then.

The attempting-departing Chinese’s helper – a middle-aged Indonesian man – opens his wallet and hands over a Rp100,000 note. Relief all around, but be careful not to touch that bill – PATHOGENS! Mr. Chinese worrywart: Next time, do us all a favour and stay at home, in your oxygen tent, and send your man out into the big, bad world of contagions to do the shopping. After all, servants are expendable. A bit like WHO advisories, really.


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One Response to “A Convulsive Expulsion of Hot Air”

  1. Mike Says:

    I suspect from your description and article the “short, fortysomething of Chinese ethnicity” is Japanese.

    It is common for people in Japan to wear surgical masks when they have a cold/flu themselves, so they don’t pass it on to other people.

    He is showing a concern for the people around him, rather than being a “senseless lemming; and a wimp.”

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