I recently watched a TV documentary on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which I feel certain the cool heads at the History Channel programmed as a way of diffusing the overblown panic gripping the world over the H1N1 outbreak by depicting just how bad it’s not. See how tens of millions of people succumbed to a seemingly innocuous viral contagion that drowns its victims in their own bloody phlegm? That’s exactly what isn’t going on in your neighborhood. Yet.

I managed not to throw myself off my fifth-floor balcony to preempt the inevitable end. But on my return to work earlier this week, I discovered others have not been so calm about the looming threat of the near-certain eradication of the human species. Last week one of the 4,000 students at my university was diagnosed with swine flu. Shortly afterward, a faculty member, a friend of mine in fact, was also labeled one of the Infected. Both were quickly snatched out of the school, tossed into a van and carted off to the local quarantine hospital, which, if you’ve ever seen a hospital in Vietnam, resembles a cross between The Island of Dr. Moreau and a Bangalore slum, only less hygienic. On the advice of Vietnam government health officials, the school initially insisted that all students and faculty who’d had contact with the two pariahs confine themselves to their homes until seven days had passed or the world ended, whichever came first. But after some consultation with, one supposes, health officials who actually understand the germ theory of disease, university officials reversed themselves and allowed the Almost-Infected to return to school.

On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, therefore, the student population disappeared behind a deluge of cheap, completely useless surgical masks. Lecture rooms looked like casting calls for Scrubs. Hallways throbbed with youth who appeared to be en route to a late-era-Michael Jackson fan club convention. Faculty members awaited the inevitable call for all lecturers to don masks themselves, resigned to a week or more of dressing like a Halloween punchline.

Yet once again, logic, or at least a close substitute, prevailed. For reasons probably having more to do with public relations than modern medical enlightenment, RMIT International University has locked the doors and barricaded the entrance (literally) until the morning of Monday, August 3.* (Updated) It’s hard to complain about an extra-long weekend. But it’s also hard to imagine we won’t be here again in a week or two weeks or three. In the meantime, I see 28 Days Later is showing this evening. One good thing about global pandemics: they’re always entertaining.

RMIT Vietnam extends Saigon South closure to Monday 3 August

24/07/2009

RMIT International University Vietnam has decided to extend the temporary closure of its operations at Saigon South until Monday 3 August.

RMIT Vietnam’s President, Professor Merilyn Liddell, announced the measure today following an initial decision yesterday to close the campus until at least Monday 27 July.

“We have consulted further with local health authorities over the past day, and the good news is that the number of people so far affected by H1N1 has remained very small.

“The total of students confirmed to have this influenza remain at only three, with one staff member also diagnosed. We expect that this number may still rise in coming days, but we believe the quick action we have taken to curtail the spread of the virus will give us every chance of keeping the total number small.”

Professor Liddell said the decision to extend the closure for a further full week, to Monday 3 August, was taken to allow time to consider assessing whether or not the small outbreak has been fully contained.

“We believe it is sensible to continue our precautionary approach for a longer period, and the local health authorities agree with this approach.

“The early action we have taken to minimise the spread of H1N1 appears to have worked to this point, so we believe it’s prudent to continue this approach for a further seven days to provide the maximum opportunity to ensure all sources of potential infection are fully cleared from the premises.”

Professor Liddell said the university placed the highest priority on the health and safety of its students and staff.

The Saigon South campus will maintain a skeleton staff of essential personnel only during the coming week, and senior management will continue to monitor developments and advise students and staff of developments as necessary. General telephone calls will be diverted to the Hanoi campus, which remains open as usual.

“We are encouraging all of our students and staff to keep checking their emails and the RMIT Vietnam website for regular updates through the week, prior to the resumption of all classes from the morning of Monday 3 August,” Professor Liddell said.

“We know there will need to be some rescheduling of examinations and other student activities. Those affected will be advised of what they need to know during the coming week.

“We will be working to ensure that no students are disadvantaged by this temporary closure.”

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