When I landed in Newark a few hours ago, I switched on my phone and got a CNN alert about the US having declared a health emergency due to the outburst of swine flu.
Reminiscent of the SARS crisis when I was traveling a few years ago in South East Asia, I was expecting to find something different at the border control at the Liberty airport. The immigration queue was very long and slow, and I thought this was a sign of some particular measure.
I was a bit surprised when, looking at the gates with immigration officers, I saw that nothing had changed. In particular every single person was being asked to put both hands on the fingerprint reader, as usual. Hadn’t I just read on the plane that one of the simplest and most important hygiene measures is to wash one’s hands? And isn’t this one of the recommendations from the CDC? Unfortunately there is no way people, who have been queuing for about 45 minutes to one hour, can either wash or clean their hands in any way before putting them on the readers. Further, as one cannot use mobile phones before passing immigration, most people take their phone straight after the gate, which means that even if they wash their hands afterwards (unlikely, if they have to get their baggage for recheck), whatever was on those readers may now be on their phones.
After this, I had to transfer to a domestic flight, departing from a different terminal. I had to go again through security and here (as usual) all passengers had to take off their shoes, put them in the same trays with computers, jackets, purses, and take them back after x-ray control. A habit that I’ve always looked at with some suspicion (after all, during SARS or bovine disease outburst people had to walk on special carpets to get their shoes disinfected), but that now seems even more worrying.
I am not an expert on health and public safety issues, but it seems to me, as a simple frequent traveler, that some of these practices may have to change pretty soon to deal with the swine flu. But then I wonder: should fingerprint readers become a health hazard, will the US immigration process grind to a halt? and should shoe soles become a hazard, how will security work?
Let’s just hope this outburst gets under control soon enough. I will be flying throughout US and Canada over the next two weeks, and I will be looking at those readers and trays with increasing discomfort.