As we approached the new Beijing Airport, the captain announced that all passengers were to remain seated when we reached the gate.
A team from the Chinese health service would board the plane to check our temperatures.
They were young health officers in crisp uniforms. Each carried a device that looked like a small hair dryer. They aimed it at a passenger’s forehead from a foot away, checked the read-out, and aimed this temperature gun at the floor to reset it. I smiled as the female officer aimed and read my temperature. Her face mask covered her expression but I thought I could see a twinkle of response in her eye.
Check. Reset. I passed!
But if just one passenger had a fever, all of us—enclosed with that passenger for 13 hours—
might have to go to a hotel for a week.
They rapidly worked the plane. Four minutes max! We were cleared to de-board.
Now to make it through immigration.
Will they notice my passport shows a Kansas address? Kansas was one of a dozen States with H1N1 cases.
I had my speech ready...how Emporia was far from Fort Riley and Wichita and Kansas City.
I never had to use it.
There were two more choke points, each with heat-sensing cameras, before we picked up our luggage. Double-check. Triple-check. They are taking no chances.
The next day, at my destination university in northwest China, I was asked to take my temperature each morning and night for a week. Had I been a returning Chinese university student, I would have likely been isolated for a week in a quarantined dormitory.
Each night, the Chinese news reported intercepting and isolating cases...Hong Kong, Shanghai.
Stopping the carriers before any internal person-to-person transmission begins.
Their response to this potentially pandemic virus was careful, measured, effective...for now.
With nearly five times our population, they have reason to be careful, and the discipline and sacrifice necessary to hold back an epidemic.
1993 was the last time I encountered a travel checkpoint in China where guards checked your papers before you could travel onward. Checkpoints were gone by 1998. But in 2003, the SARS virus jumped from civet cats into the south China population and began to spread. My colleagues told me not to come that year. China shut down all airlines. All trains. To get across country, the university would have to send a car for you. And China reestablished their travel checkpoints. This time no guns, just thermometers. Run a temperature and you stayed in place. Students remained on campus, behind university walls. China stopped SARS in its tracks, and Hong Kong scientists worked out the identity of the corona virus in record time.
My Chinese friends know that in these situations, group responsibility comes before personal rights. The greatest good for the greatest number.
But in the United States, 20-mile checkpoints would be unthinkable.
Friends have told me I must be brave to consider going to China when a pandemic is underway. Not really.
If there is any “braveness” involved, it would be in coming back.