3571536205_b36406b30cAs an English teacher at a 6,000-strong middle school in the northwest of Hunan province, I come into contact with several hundred students a day.  My course load puts me in front of roughly 850 students a week.  In a school as cramped as mine, the students and staff are constantly breathing each other’s germs.  As such, when I started to get a deep-lung cough and run a mild fever, I should have known it was only a matter of time before the surgical-mask brigade descended on our school.

Tuesday, October 26th, after about a week of classrooms full of hacking, coughing, sniffling teenagers, I walked into my first period to find 40% of my class wearing surgical masks.  The next day, the school closed down for a week due to the diagnosis of swine flu in several students and one teacher.  That’s right: we got the piggy.

H1N1 has become a pandemic, so much so that it’s now considered to be “the dominant flu strain in the world today,” according to an article at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  The article gives a good overview of the implications and complications of swine flu and the panic surrounding it.   The US government’s website about the flu provides statistical evidence that backs up the RFE/RL article.  The World Health Organization has an FAQ about the pandemic.

Reading through the cautious language, one can see that all three of these sources confirm the argument that swine flu isn’t that big of a deal.  As far as typical mortality rates go, H1N1 has killed less people than seasonal flu.  Regardless of the fact that it affects “young and healthy people,” as the catchphrase goes, most of the people hospitalized for the swine flu (“over half” on the WHO website and “about 70 percent” on flu.gov) had pre-existing conditions that made them more susceptible to serious infection, such as asthma and diabetes.  The most recommended treatment for non-severe H1N1 symptoms is bed-rest and lots of fluids.  This is your typical flu season fare.

All organizations recommend a week at home at the onset of symptoms.  The opinions differ on the surgical masks, however.  RFE/RL says wearing one all day does nothing but render the mask useless.  The US government says infected people should wear them to protect the people they share a space with.  I say it doesn’t really do you any good when half the kids wearing them take them off five minutes into class out of irritation or boredom.

Over the week we had off of school, I was given permission from my school to travel, and I went to visit a friend who is teaching in Shaanxi province.  Regardless of my being fever-free for five days, and the fact that the students would be gone for the weekend anyway (as her school is not a boarding school), I was denied permission to stay at her apartment on campus, even for the weekend evenings.  When I returned to my school the day before classes resumed, everyone was checked at the gate for signs of a fever.

As for myself, I’m pretty sure I did have H1N1.  I had a mild fever (easily broken with a few acetaminophen I brought with me from home), and a productive cough (probably due to the flu exacerbating my dormant bronchitis from years of smoking).  I taught for a few days and then as I started to feel better, school got cancelled.  Hey, maybe I gave my students H1N1.  But I had to have gotten it from somewhere…


  1. I have to say, though, despite all the hype about H1N1 and the useless masks, I’m amused by how cloth surgical masks have become a fashion accessory. I was actually pretty tempted to buy a little black mask with a cute pattern of skulls on it this past weekend, but then I stopped myself when I realized that I would never EVER wear it. Besides, I have lots of free masks given to me by my school already. 🙂

  2. The masks especially do nothing when they let their noses stick out over the mask when it starts to stifle their breathing. I see this way way too much. Though honestly I don’t think they do crap anyway.

    I had a wicked fever/cold last week that faded in and out. It got me thinking that I have no idea how to tell if it was H1N1 or just a normal fever. And the thought of being quarantined in a Chinese hospital for a week when it might just be normal flu isn’t really a thought I enjoy.

  3. Dena, I definitely bought a Spongebob mask and a cutesy-hearts mask to bring home with me as keepsakes for my time here. 🙂 Couldn’t help myself. If I saw a black one with skulls, I’d buy that one too.

  4. I was sick this weekend, I don’t *think* it was H1N1.

    However, I would like to point out that if you are going to stay home and beat the illness with good old bed & rest (which is what I did) be sure that you don’t have low quality or *gasp* fake drugs.

    I had a high fever for two days that would only go down for a few hours before returning to almost 40*. When I did do to the hospital the doctor chuckled and gave me some real drugs. 12 hours later with a good nap and I was better.

    山寨(shan zhai) products have made there way into everything..

  5. @Xuchen: I’m pretty sure there’s no drugs you can take to get better from a flu – it’s either preventative or symptom alleviation — right? Fake drugs or not, I’m betting it was more the rest than anything the docs gave you.

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