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!


  1. I am somewhat amused by the furor over the H1N1 virus...I think your experience just about sums up the whole thing. First, over 36,000 people die from influenza in the United States alone. No one even thinks to stay home if they have fevers and the flu, the continue to work or school (I find the rewards for perfect attendance odious as this spreads illness to others and for those of us who keep their kids home until 24 hours since the last is maddening).

    Proper handwashing (sing Happy Birthday to you! or "For He's a jolly good fellow" and by the time you're done, then you're fairly safe--soap and water please), and sneezing into your elbow (not on hands please) really makes more sense than anything else..but then again, I am appalled at people's handwashing techniques in general...watching women leave the restrooms at airports without washing just about makes my skin crawl).

    The nonsense about banning imports of pork is also ridiculous. But, this and your experience at the airport boil down to one thing....people want to see that the "Government" is doing matter how silly it is in the long run.

  2. You're absolutely right, Lisa. Sometimes the authorities feel they need to be seen doing something... anything... every time a new crisis shows up. Never mind that the 'something' may actually aggravate the situation!

    And yes, why on earth do they glorify perfect attendance? It just isnt humanly possible to be absolutely healthy every single day. But basic precautions and hygiene, like you said, go a long way to help us there.

  3. This is so typical - we over-react to news of epidemics and pandemics without stopping to step back and analyze all the data (which now say that things are nowhere as bad as they were initially made out to be). Then boom! It's all over and we rush on to the next crisis.
    That must have been scary, losing sight of your daughter in that mayhem.
    Hope you had a wonderful vacation, anyway!

  4. Just 1 case is enough given the public health situation in India. It will multiply like geometric progression and soon in a country of 1.1 billion teeming masses and rising at the rate of one Australia each year it will sweep the country from North to South and East to West.

  5. India for ever the 3rd world country.
    Those who boast about India progressing should land at Mumbai Airport. Did you try warming some one's palm with green bills? That should have seen you escape this ordeal. How about trying that you are Sonia Gandhi's cousin?

  6. You're so right, Anonymous. That enforced close proximity with potential carriers is exactly what should've been avoided. In the earnetness to check for carriers entering the country, there seemed to be no importance placed on avoiding the germs being liberally handed around just in case there was a carrier in the group.
    Lines separated by ropes or whatever would've made a big difference. So would having more officials who could guide the passengers on the proceedure. As it was there was just one very harassed man shouting out instructions to a large group of very confused and increasingly impatient passengers.
    I still cant figure out why they had only one desk to handle this. They obviously know the capacity of international flights and more than one flight landing at approximately the same time can spell disaster!

  7. Anonymous, thanks for writing in. I think here it was more a case of extremely bad planning.Like I said earlier, more than desk to handle the forms and checks would've helped. Handing out the forms earlier or even having more people on the job would've helped.
    Hmmm... I doubt whether your suggestions would've worked in this case :)

  8. Kamini, scary doesnt even begin to cover it! It left a very bad taste on a wonderful holiday.
    The whole exercise was so pointless. Nobody was actually checking for symptoms. They only wanted a stamp on a form which had details easily collected on a computer. So why endanger a full flight-load of people by throwing them into dangerously close contact if one of them was a carrier?

  9. Just reading about this made me so angry. But this is just how everything works here.
    Not being able to immediately find your daughter must have been really bad.
    If there is a real epidemic I can't imagine what we'd do. There will be negelect and chaos both,

  10. Hi, IH. I'm so sorry I'm taking ages to reply but all this travelling leaves me too scrambled to tap on my laptop.
    You're absolutely right... that was the worst experience of what was supposed to be a very relaxing trip. At the end of it, I felt I needed a holiday to get away from the stress of the immigration hall. Horrible!

  11. Sunita, my medical information said that it is a flue like many others. But there is a lot of tamiflue around which should be used before it expires, one way to sell the stuff!

  12. Hi Trudi! Its great to see you here. Tamiflu does seem to be put to a lot of use nowadays, doesnt it? If I'm not mistaken, it was prescribed for some of the other 'Medical Scare of the Year' issues in the last couple of years.
    I do wish they would think of prevention and not just the identification and cure. It would make things so much simpler.