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Half-empty plane: Is it swine flu or slump?

BEIJING en route to NEW YORK via LONDON – 

My flight to London was half-full – perhaps from last-minute cancellations over swine flu fears, but more likely the result of the global economic recession, which has drastically reduced tourism and business travel, or maybe it was just due to the ungodly departure hour of 7:45 a.m.

As with elsewhere, coverage of the swine flu in China has been non-stop, but the Chinese passengers on my flight shrugged off the news. 

Image: thermal detectors at Beijing Capital International Airport
Andy Wong / AP
Customs officers monitor passengers through a thermal detector machine at the arrival hall of Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China on Tuesday.

An elderly woman said she wasn't worried; besides, this was only her second visit in seven years to the U.K. to see her daughter, who lives in England's Midlands region.

And a young woman named Xu Man, who was traveling on to Amsterdam, likewise said she was "unconcerned" about the spread of the virus.

Pro-active monitoring

Still China's government has taken great pains to appear reassuring and in command as the number of swine flu cases (also known as H1N1) escalates around the world.

That's hardly surprising given the Chinese authorities' track record in recent years. The attempted cover-up of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in 2003 badly damaged the central government's image and credibility. And the country has benefited from ongoing experiences with bird flu outbreaks.

Among those lessons learned is greater surveillance of travelers' health – which happens even when there is no apparent threat. For instance, at the Beijing airport, departing and arriving international passengers must always walk through an infrared temperature scan – even when no pandemic threats are in the headlines.

And in recent days, the government has responded with alacrity by promising greater openness and vigilance in its monitoring of the H1N1 virus. It has also banned pig and pork imports from Mexico and the U.S. – although the World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed the virus is not transmitted through the handling or consumption of food. 

Moreover, President Hu Jintao has ordered local and central authorities to bolster inspection and quarantine steps to prevent swine flu from entering China.

Press keeping a sharp eye

Nonetheless even while ordinary citizens seem generally blasé, the local and foreign press are not. 

At a heavily subscribed Tuesday press briefing by the WHO's top China representative, Hans Troedsson, reporters were less interested in China's preparedness than its transparency in reporting suspected cases. 

Questions focused on an outbreak of illness affecting more than 100 students in Shaanxi province (the Health Ministry subsequently said the case was due to Type B influenza and not related to swine flu) and whether the H1N1 virus had originated in China.  

But as I sit in Heathrow and wait for my connecting flight to JFK, there don't seem to be any heightened travel precautions.

It leaves me wondering: How much more will the virus spread? And will China, or other countries, end up trying to limit the entry of travelers from New York and other affected areas?