Masks and Blindfolds

May 20, 2009

H1N1, or swine flu, or whatever you want to call it has hit Japan hard in the past week. I first heard about it sitting in the staff room at the international school where I work, when it was announced, well bellowed might be nearer the truth, by a fellow teacher: “SWINE ‘FLU HIT KOBE!”

Shrieks of terror ensued, people dove to get ‘flu masks from their bags; three teachers coming to blows over a mask that was sitting on the table in front of them, one female staff member fainted into her noodles, and those people who live in Kobe were immediately hauled out of the staffroom and quarantined in the tennis courts for the remainder of the day. I almost heard the siren go off. Does this seem like an overreaction to you? OK so maybe not all of that actually happened, but if our staff room was a microcosm of the country, maybe it would have.

By the end of the school day at the staff meeting it was announced that ALL public schools in Kobe, as well as some private schools, were closed until further notice. By the time I got home to Kyoto that evening that had been upgraded to ALL public schools in Kobe, AND Osaka. That is over 1000 schools. Closed. All this because one 3rd year high school student was afflicted with this new type of ‘flu. Whoa. Would you like some paranoia with that reaction?

Of course I can understand the necessity for diligence, Japan is an extremely densely populated country. Anyone who has had to ride on the subway during rush hour here can attest to the fact. When you can smell the shampoo (or lack of) of the person in front of you then you know personal space is a lit-tle scarce. So, like I said, I can understand the need for dilligence when it comes to stopping the spread of the ‘flu, but there is also something to be said for fearmongering and unnecessary, or even futile, precautions.

People have been told little of the actual symptoms of the H1N1 ‘flu, but been  inundated with advice and measures that should be taken. At the top of the list (sensibly I think) are these three: 1. Wash your hands. 2. Gargle. 3. Get plenty of sleep. Sonds about right to me… so where do thermal goggles, flimsy ‘flu masks and stocking up on non-perishable food items fit into this picture? For my mind anyway… they don’t.

Thermal goggles? Yes, thermal goggles. Used in order to detect if people are running a fever and not being completely open and honest about it. These were a product of the SARS scare of a few years ago. ( You remember SARS, that was right before bird ‘flu on the list of “we’re all doomed” viruses). Anyway, these goggles were effective during the SARS ‘outbreak’ because SARS was almost exclusively passed on from people who had a high fever. The ‘swine ‘flu’ however is passed on well beore the host shows any sign of a fever, so why bother with them? Maybe it’s paranoia, or keeping people on their toes, or maybe it was the quarantine official at the airport who told his underling:

“Oii, Yamada-san. Dust off those thermal-whatchama-call-its would ya? Yeah thats them in the back next to the anthrax. No thats the confiscated charlie, hands off.. Yeah, just behind the rubber gloves. That’s them. They can finally pay for themselves now!”

Speaking of pay-days. How would you like to own a company who produces ‘flu masks right about now? Those guys must be thanking their lucky pigs right now! These masks are almost ubiquitous in Japan year round, due to their supposed effectiveness  against pollen allergies (big in Japan). But try and find a mask anywhere right now and you’re out of luck my friend. Sold out. One of my students actually told me she was going to ask her son (a doctor) to smuggle some out of the hospital for her! True story. She said it with a straight face, she was serious. Now there’s a chance for a blackmarket if ever there was one. Flu masks? – yeah. How many? OK. but its gonna cost ya. The fact that these masks effectiveness against the virus has not even been proven doesn’t seem to matter. I saw a suit walking down the street yesterday with a mask hanging off his chin as he yapped away on his cellphone. (!?). A gaggle of school kids (all masked-up) scuttled past another group of people smoking cigarettes. The juxtaposition called for a photo.  It must be a security blanket thing I think. Got mask, am invincible. Haven’t got mask? Umm… Try gargling. Oh and try not to share spit with strangers. That’ll do at this stage I think.

As for people stocking up on food and water… hmm. Now that is an overreaction, I’m sorry. People need to be doing their normal routine and not hunkering indoors like there is a serial killer lurking in their corridor. Surely – and I’m not speaking with any authority you understand – it would be better to be exposed to whatever is out there now, rather than in a year when it may have mutated into something far worse? Get your immunity now kids, while you can! Japanese tourists are  notorious for getting sick when they travel overseas for this very reason. Alot of them are  so careful and clean and, well, sterile that as soon as the step off the plane in Vietnam -BAM- they’re coming down with something. Immune systems need a few germs to keep them on their toes, I thought.

I don’t want to come across as a complete sceptic – although I pray my scepticism is proven to be justified- I’m just surprised at the reaction here in Japan. This is a country where people are easily persuaded through the media as to how they should behave and react in certain situations. I guess every  mainstreammedia in every country can be said to apply the same blindfold of propagandic principle, but it appears to be so easily accepted here. It is probably easier for me to see this going on as an outsider looking in, but even so I don’t think I’ll be paying blackmarket prices for a piece of cloth anytime soon.