May 5, 2009

An exercise in dis-organisation

A touch of concern : cases of swine flu have crossed borders and are showing up in India too. The papers this morning reported 2 cases but by evening now there seem to be 5 cases detected in India.
Scary? You bet! But you know what, if my experiences were anything to go by, I wouldn't be surprised if more cases show up with the virus being literally forced on the patients at our airports.

A couple of weeks ago, I crossed the Singapore border to go to Malaysia by train. When the initial documentation checks were done at the Singapore railway station, we were handed a health form to fill in along with our immigration form. This was the usual ' have you been to Africa / South America in the last 10 days' kind of form but we had plenty of time to fill it in while travelling to the Malaysian border.
This was back when CNN and BBC were getting all worked up about the illness but there were no cases reported in the Asian continent yet so I suppose the Malaysian authorities were quite relaxed about physical health checks. It was something which seemed to affect only the Americas and Europe.

By the time we were finished with lazing around the beaches of Tioman and heading back to Singapore a week later, matters had definitely become more serious and even in the miniscule airport of Tioman, the tension was palpable. We were all handed small forms to fill in while we were waiting to take off and asked to add our address and connecting flight details too. We were warned to make sure we filled it in before reaching Singapore or we would have to stand in long queues later (any holiday-maker's nightmare!).

We did end up standing in a very slow queue for our immigration but with a scanner/ camera / watchamacallit placed innocuously next to the winding but very small line of passengers, getting our temperatures read or symptoms checked without us even realising it, I suppose. One Caucasian couple did get a very polite request to step out of the line and a digital thermometer was very efficiently put to work. But that's it.

Yesterday we checked in at Changi airport to fly back to India. We were handed the mandatory immigration declaration form with one standard question on whether we had travelled to Africa or South America. No health form here.

When we landed in Mumbai, weary and ready to catch up on all the sleep we had missed, we rushed to the immigration counter happy to be back in India (its amazing! a short 2 week holiday away from home can still make me feel like shouting "Jai Hind!" when we were finally flying over the Indian landmass).

Well, welcome back ... the immigration hall had these rows demarcated for international passengers and others for domestic passengers. Just as we were rushing to the counter for domestic passengers, we were suddenly told by a very harassed looking official that everyone had to first get a form from another counter, fill it in and submit it at a desk for approval!

Hey! If you had just thought of that 5 hours ago before the flight took off and handed us some forms at Changi airport, everyone would've had their forms filled in and ready, wouldn't they?
As it was, it was like the biggest stampede you ever saw!
About 200 very confused people were determined to get their forms but had no idea where they were. After a treasure-hunt of sorts with tired and disgruntled passengers refusing to give way to anyone who even thought of cutting their line to cross to the other side, my daughter was nearly in tears.

What was supposed to be a single-line queue soon morphed into a rugby huddle . Now there were about 200 (it seemed like a thousand ! ) sweaty, impatient people of all races and sizes crammed cheek-to-cheek and nose-to-shoulder trying to juggle paper and pen and fill in the forms while struggling to keep their place in 5 (or was it 10?) imaginary lines which seemed to blend and merge at haphazard points.
I swear if this scene had appeared in one of our hindi movies, it would have been censored for obscenely close proximity.

Total chaos!
Tempers were fraying. Voices were rising. The officials were struggling to keep up with the onslaught. Finally it came down to a shouted "where are you from?" to a man who rushed in from behind me with a filled form .
"London", he said.
"You have no fever, no?"
A shake of the head, and the form was stamped!

My 12-year old daughter who finished her turn before me was lost, not knowing where to go because there was no place to stand beside me till I had finished and there seemed to be no place to which she could retreat where she could still see me or I her. She was forced to move on and by the time I could find her again after a lot of frantic searching, I was ready to punch someone.
Maybe I'm over-protective but I totally resent that the airport authorities forced that situation on me.
The health declaration form was not something which sprang up in the 5 hours during our flight so why couldn't they have given us the form to fill in earlier before we landed?
Why were there no demarcated lines with dividing ropes or whatever, already in place at the health check desk before the flight landed ?
Who was keeping a check on the checkers? If they were not actually checking for symptoms along with collecting the forms, what was the need for this new form of torture?

I'm 100% sure that if I contract swine flu or any other contagious disease, I got it at that horrendous immigration hall at Mumbai international airport!