Quarantined at Narita, May 2009

Cleaning up my computer files I found this narrative from May 2009, written while in quarantine at Narita Airport. Japanese bureaucracy takes its responsibilities seriously, as you will see.

“Did you see the article on the swine flu in Japan?” Margaret asked excitedly. I was planning a trip to Japan to participate in a conference and begin research on a new project at the end of the month, scheduled to leave in two days, so it was an item of interest.

Jump to O’Hare ‘s United terminal. I’m waiting to board UA 881 to Narita, the flight is full so they can’t move me forward in the cabin from my assigned 56B seat. They announce that the Japanese health authorities are quarantining any one with a fever, so we are asked to change our travel plans if we at all feel ill. I overhear Sachi, the purser, tell the desk personnel that the Japanese are serious.

An uneventful flight. It seems to pass more quickly than most of my trips over. I read a paper for the conference, doze a little, try to watch the movies as the passengers and crew pass up and down the aisle. Once a crew member stands right in front of me, her butt uncomfortably close to my face, while she waits for another crew member to get a sale item. I think I’m not flying United again.

I’m sitting between a 20-something woman returning to Taiwan (in seat 56A), and a 30-ish man named Yoshi from Chicago, a graphic designer for computer games returning to Japan to attend his sister-in-law’s wedding. His wife and 18 month old son are with her family in Ome, a rural area toward the mountains West of Tokyo.

We land at 2:30 PM local time and are given health forms to fill out—any symptoms such as fever, runny nose, etc. Taking any medications? What countries have you traveled to in the last month?

We are told health officials will board the plane to check for anyone with a fever. They’re all wearing blue surgery wraps—secured invariably in the back, in ad hoc fashion, with clear duck tape!—surgeon’s gloves and masks with little dials in the front. They walk up and down the aisles collecting the survey forms, and two rows ahead of me, in seat 54A, a 20-something man (I learn from the next morning’s NHK radio reporting that he’s a Korean national) draws their attention. Apparently the heat camera they’ve been scanning us with registered a fever. They stick a thermometer in his ear, turns out he does have a temperature and much discussion ensues. It has been close to an hour since we landed, and the everyone is still on the plane. They give everyone around us but the 54A man a yellow sheet indicating that we’ve passed the test and are certified by the health authorities to be swine flu free. We breathe a sigh of relief. But then a few moments later the blue-coated technicians put red dots on the rows of seats on our side of the plane three rows ahead and three rows behind the fellow. I learn from a tv show later that night that there is a quick test involving a cotton swab stuck up your nose that diagnoses A or B type virus within 15 minutes. I forget now which came first, but they eventually decide to let the rest of the passengers (those without red dots) go their own way, and they take the 54A man to the upper deck for an examination and the swab flu test.

The 16 of us left are told that they are examining the man in the upper deck, the exam results will be in hand in 15 to 20 minutes and if the test shows negative we can go our way. They hand out another health declaration form to fill out, similar to the first one we filled out, complete with our contact information in Japan. Yoshi says he thinks it’s just to keep us occupied, and he might be right since the only difference with the earlier form is that we sign at the bottom that we’ll allow health authorities to examine us again at some later date, either over the telephone or at a clinic.

Turns out the guy with the fever tests positive, but they want to do more tests so they take him to the Red Cross Hospital. They say it’ll be another 7-8 hours before they know the answer. Meanwhile the 8 or so technicians are walking up and down the aisles checking seats two or three times—doesn’t look like they’re sure they checked all the passengers. All in all it looks like they’re still working out the kinks in their procedures. I later ask one of the technicians how often they find a case and he said this is only the 2nd or 3rd time, and later over the radio I hear there was one Northwest flight on the 19th in which there was a case, with 11 people isolated—that is they are told to go home and avoid crowds. Those of us among the 16 with seats proximate to 54A who are connecting to international flights are allowed to make their connections. We wish them well, and I wonder how the authorities in Taibei, Singapore, and Bangkok will greet them. We four passengers and all 16 crew members remaining on board UA881 are left in limbo in the plane, while the technicians meet up front in first class, and business-suited men in the jetway continue talking things over. The members of the crew are also getting antsy. We four captive passengers, one Japanese Mitsubishi electrical engineer, a business-man looking fellow, Yoshi, and I, are probably the most composed. We’re moved to the front of the plane to await the bus that will take us to a hotel, while 6 cleaners come in and clean our section in the coach and the upper deck. They’re dressed in Dupont white suits that remind me of the suited bio-chemical technicians in “ET”

They let the crew members who didn’t serve in coach go, and the rest are twiddling their thumbs like us. One complains that there’s no United official to make a decision as to whether they deplane or not. If they don’t enter Japan they won’t be subject to quarantine.

The authorities take our passports and customs cards, then return our passports and take our baggage claim checks. We finally are escorted to a shuttle—one technician for each of us– and taken to the Narita Rest House, a comfortable but elemental crash pad. Although it’s May and the days are getting longer, by this time night has fallen. There are television cameras with Klieg lights recording our walk between the shuttle and the hotel, all the media hustling to capture for the late night and early morning news shows the latest disease vectors from abroad. I wonder briefly what to say if they get past the security guards and ask questions, but they never get near us. Inside we are escorted directly to our second-floor rooms and then left alone for the rest of the night. There’s a quarantine official at a desk at the end of our hall. There’s no internet connection in the room, but I am able to call my hotel that night to tell them I won’t be there. I try to convince the quarantine officials that it’d be ok for me to take my laptop to the lobby where there’s wifi available, but to no avail.

Mr. Fukuda from United calls to check in on me and he offers to call home to let them know my status. He tries to negotiate with the authorities about who bears the cost, the detainee or the government, and in the end he calls Margaret for me. Margaret ends up calling me back due to minor confusion about an email from me.

All in all, it reminds me of my time traveling alone in the USSR in the 1980s, with Intourist officials monitoring my every movement.

This morning I find a sheet slid under my door telling me that 54A man tested positive and that we’d be visited by a doctor in our rooms this morning, and that we’d be moved to another hotel around noon today for a longer-term quarantine.

Yet on tv they’re reporting a change in government policy due to more cases cropping up in Kansai (around Kyoto and Osaka) and now in the Kanto (Tokyo area). They say starting tomorrow they’ll stop detaining those who were merely sitting near the infected passengers. I guess that means we’ll be kept in quarantine one more night, but one can’t tell and no one is communicating with us about it. At O’Hare I heard the quarantine was 10 days, last night Mr. Fukuda told me it would be 5 to 7 days, now I’m thinking it might be two or three. We’re in our own rooms, in quarantine, and I don’t know the room numbers of the others so I’m spending my time writing this and listening to the media about the flu. Could be worse, they feed me and I’m left alone, and now the Yankees-Orioles game is on the satellite tv channel, so I’m going to resume reading the papers for the conference. (8:35 AM, Tokyo time).

9:30 AM. Temperature taken (37.0 degrees C) and interview with a health worker, no examination, just a repeat of the questions on the form. He asks how I feel and although I feel rotten, I say the best I’ve ever felt after travelling half-way around the world, which is true. The food and dark, quiet room actually have helped with my jetlag. If all of us are of normal health, we’ll be taken to immigration to officially enter the country. He says about an hour. If I understood the quarantine official, it looks like we’ll be allowed to go if everyone is ok. Here’s hoping.

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