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A swine of a flu

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By Andrew Biggs

It’s been a busy two weeks for your favorite correspondent, who has managed to travel to eight different provinces in ten days.

No, not adjacent provinces either. It was down to Songkhla, then up to Chiang Mai, then across to Nakhon  Ratchasima, followed by Nakhon Nayok, Chonburi, Khon Kaen … et cetera.

The result? Today, deadline day for this column, I am sick with the flu. Feeling wretched, sorry for myself, and lacking in wit and wisdom.

It had to happen. One can’t sit in an airplane with 200 strangers and not expect to pick up something other than worthless frequent flier miles.

It is also very bad timing; there have been news reports of a resurgence in swine flu with Livestock officials on guard against the African strain making its to Thailand again. Remind me to pray that doesn’t happen … again.

In 2009 Thailand was hit with swine flu. What a horrible time that was to catch the simple flu. The country locked down as it tried to prevent the flu sweeping across the country. Anyone who caught the dreaded flu was not met with any sympathy or suggestions to drink lots of water and get plenty of rest. You were not considered a patient; you were treated as a leper.

I know; I caught the flu right in the middle of the swine flu outbreak of 2009.

Everybody was paranoid about catching it, because some 44 people succumbed to the disease that year and official figures show just under 5,000 people caught it. That was a mortality rate of just 0.88% but at the time we were all dead scared.

In that climate of fear I came down with the flu.

It was clearly just a regular flu, or at least that’s what my doctor told me, but he was just one opinion. The general population rushed to their sheds at the back of their houses to retrieve their ten-foot barge poles whenever they saw me coming in my regulation mask and pallid complexion.

I remember jumping into the back seat of a taxi and coughing. No, not a thunderous, phlegmy, guttural cough from the depths of my lungs. It was more of an acceptable, almost foppish “a-hem” but the driver – who I might add had just extinguished a cigarette as I got into his nicotine-stained carriage – immediately wound down his window and stuck his nose out into the Bangkok pollution, as if that was somehow going to save him from the dreaded farang in the back seat. Lung cancer, mai pen rai. Farang flu, not on your life.

Anyway I survived, and the odds are clearly in the favor of that taxi driver too. My trip to hospital during those scary times was not the usual happy experience.

Happy? Oh yes. Visiting a hospital in Thailand always reminds me of my youth. Every August in Brisbane, Australia, we had what we called the Exhibition, a gathering of Queensland’s best of all things agricultural, if not cerebral, for one glorious week. It was the one week of the year the state’s farmers donned their best Akubra hats and stood in circles comparing the sizes of their horse studs. Going to the exhibition was an assault on your senses – the smell of beer, sawdust, horse manure, sheep, horse manure, fried foods and horse manure. But this is not why it reminds me of Thai hospitals.

As a kid you had to go to the Exhibition pavilions where you bought what we called “sample bags” full of colorful cheap and nasty games and chocolates. I am reminded of those sample bags every time I go to hospital in Thailand, as I am about to explain.

During swine flu of 2009, it was a different story.

When I arrived at the hospital the usual young man in a suit escorted me over to a nurse who took my blood pressure then placed a thermometer in my mouth.

“I don’t have a temperature,” I said rather pathetically as her hand, sensibly ensconced in rubber gloves, guided the mercury under my tongue.

“38-point-five,” she said in a tone of voice used for axe murderers. “You have a temperature.”

She may as well have said: “You’re the weakest link. Goodbye.” The suited young man whipped out a surgical mask and handed it to me. “Wear this,” he said curtly, and then, as if his arm had been twisted: “Khrab.”

He, too, donned a mask as he guided me into the antiseptic depths of despair known as the waiting room. There, dozens of other masked folk sat waiting for their names to be called. After depositing me there he shuffled off in the direction of the bathrooms, no doubt to shed his suit in preparation for a full-body hose and scrub down.

It didn’t take long for the cattle to be herded in, one by one, and soon I was face to face with a doctor who, in my allotted three minutes, told me I had a flu but “probably not swine flu”. That’s because my temperature hadn’t reached 39 degrees. He figured I wasn’t at risk. This was at the tail end of the epidemic, and the doctor explained that being tested for swine flu would cost me 4,000 baht. This was back in the era before private hospitals got greedy, and 4,000 baht in 2009 would be equivalent to about 23,650 baht in today’s climate of fleece-what-you-can-from-the-patient.

“Get plenty of rest and come back if your temperature goes over 39,” he said. I was then led to the cashier and drug dispenser where I received an exciting array of colored pills in little plastic bags.

This is the medical equivalent of the Brisbane exhibition sample bags. And like those bags from my childhood, each little bag promised so much but ultimately delivered so little. “TAKE TWO EVERY SIX HOURS” one little packet sternly read. When I opened it, it was Tylenol. How disappointing — imagine my excitement had it been Diazepam or Cerepax! Now you’re talking, doctor!

I spent four days in bed. Nobody visited. One of my friends, as a (literally) sick joke, told everybody I had swine flu. Ha ha, very funny, you may as well have bricked up the door to my bedroom. I would have gone crazy from the solitude save for one saving grace. I watched Seasons One and Two of the old 1980s prime time soap opera Dynasty. The day I was strong enough to return to work I ordered Season Three from Amazon because I didn’t think my life would be fulfilled if I didn’t find out what happened to Fallon’s baby. Since then I have always associated Krystle and Alexis with lying sick in bed all alone for a week surviving on rice porridge and Tylenol.

The world has changed since 2009. Hospital fees have doubled, and I no longer have to order soap operas off Amazon thanks to Netflix and Pirate Bay. But the flu is still no fun, so I apologize for leaving you early this week to go get some further rest.

Next week when I am feeling better I promise to regale you with hilarity and share with you more pearls of wisdom — pearls before swine in the very truest sense.

Stay healthy, dear reader. Please comment below!




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