State Department travel warnings are typically dry and restrained, but China has succeeded in breaking that cycle. Even though carefully worded, a recent advisory couldn’t mask the department’s puzzlement and disapproval of the unreasonable treatment of visitors to China because of the swine flu.
Too bad that the U.S. government can do little about it, beyond warning Americans about the prospect of spending a week confined to a seedy quarantine room, without clean drinking water, air conditioning and decent communication with the outside world — even without their children.
“The random nature of the selection process increases the uncertainty surrounding travel to China,” the department said. “The selection process focuses on those sitting in close proximity to another traveler exhibiting fever or flu-like symptoms, [while others are] being placed in precautionary quarantine simply because they registered slightly elevated temperatures.”
In other words, unless you absolutely have to travel or seek adventures, you should delay or cancel your trip to China.
The authorities there don’t seem to mind the damage their treatment of visitors could do to tourism. China is the only country in the world that has refused to adjust its anti-flu measures to the changing dynamics of the illness and its spread. Health inspectors still board every plane arriving from North America in full protective gear to measure passengers’ temperatures.
As reported in this column last month, Japan implemented similar measures when public-health officials first warned about the so-called H1N1 virus. The Japanese authorities soon realized, however, that the steps they took at airports failed to contain the virus. Most quarantined travelers never got sick, and many of those who walked away because they didn’t display symptoms during the inspections later developed them.
It also became clear that the flu is not nearly as severe as initially feared and responds to regular treatment.
Those facts so far have failed to persuade the Chinese to adapt to the changing circumstances. They have actually stepped up their draconian measures. There are now reports from American visitors that they are being rounded up during sightseeing and quarantined days after arrival because someone on their flight tested positive for the virus.
“The Department of State has received reports about unsuitable quarantine conditions, including the unavailability of suitable drinking water and food, unsanitary conditions and the inability to communicate with others,” the agency’s travel alert said.
“In some instances, children have been separated from their parents because either the parent or the child tested positive for H1N1 and was placed in quarantine for treatment,” it said. “This situation presents the possibility of Chinese medical personnel administering medications to minors without first having consulted their parents.”
While the department clearly disapproves of those measures, it concedes that visitors to China “are obliged to follow local procedures regarding quarantines and any other public health-related measures.” It also warns that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing “will be unable to influence the duration of stay in quarantine for affected travelers.”
Still, “we advise Americans who find themselves in quarantine to contact the embassy or nearest consulate, so that we can coordinate on their cases,” said embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson. There are consulates in Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Wuhan.
When the self-governing Chinese territory of Hong Kong quarantined foreign visitors last month, it offered them free luxury accommodation, meals, Internet access and newspapers, as well as free changes to their plane tickets, since many missed their return flights.
However, “the Chinese government will not compensate people for lost travel expenses,” the State Department said. “Travelers to China are urged to consider purchasing travel insurance to protect against losses in the event they are quarantined.”
The Chinese authorities have a good reason to be cautious. It was in China that the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) originated in late 2002, but Beijing failed to inform the World Health Organization until about three months later and restricted media coverage. The disease quickly spread to more than 35 countries, killing more than 770 people.
To many, the current measures seem to be going to the other extreme, but Wei Xin, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said that they are being taken “for the sole purpose of protecting public health, including foreign travelers.”
• Click here to contact Nicholas Kralev. His “On the Fly” column runs every Monday.