I first knew Chile was suspicious of me when a flight attendant handed me a batch of Chilean customs and immigration forms that included, for the first time, a health questionnaire. As a "traveler arriving from an infected area," I was asked whether I'd experienced sore throat, vomiting, muscle pain or a variety of other symptoms within the past 10 days. Luckily, I was able to check an honest "none of the above" and banish fears of being dragged away by men in hazmat suits.
Upon arriving in Chile, the passengers on my flight filed one by one in front of a thermal camera. Apparently fever free, I continued to immigration, where an official in a surgical mask stamped my passport.
I remained a deadly threat after leaving the airport as well. Upon hearing that I had just returned from a visit home, people take a step back only half-jokingly.
With so many people afraid of me, I've started to become afraid of myself. I feel an inexplicable inner certainty that swine flu is not the way I go. However, that doesn't mean I can't unknowingly infect slews of people who may not be as lucky, right? I've started standing a bit further back when I talk to people and have become paranoid about what I touch. For example, after blowing my nose while teaching yesterday, I spent the rest of the class avoiding touching anything with the hand that had held the tissue.
Now that there have been a handful of swine flu cases confirmed in Chile, I'm afraid of other people too. Yesterday I wore mittens, both because it was cold in the morning and because I didn't want to touch the handrails in the Metro. When someone sneezed at the bus stop, I moved away quickly, forfeiting a coveted spot in the shade. I hold my breath whenever someone coughs or sniffles and immediately grow wary of the puffy-eyed.
Am I being ridiculous? It's been known to happen.
I've heard people theorize that swine flu is part of a worldwide conspiracy to make us afraid of one another while distracting us from real problems that no surgical mask can fend off. If this is true, then congratulations, shadow government. I raise my glass to you with a mittened hand.
(I took this photo at a Labor Day march I'll blog about at some point.)