In 2003, my friend Dan and I explored Southeast Asia. The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic was winding down, but, in the last few months, a new strain had emerged, characterized by fever, diarrhea, respiratory duress, and a high fatality rate. Several folks in remote Cambodian villages had succumbed to the affliction, perishing in fits of coughing, choking, and delirium. Locals were sacrificing pigs and chickens and standing up straw effigies to ward off evil spirits.
In Thailand, SARS was never mentioned. We never even saw anyone in surgical masks. We didn’t realize it was still lingering in the region until we attempted to enter Cambodia. At the Poi Pet crossing station, we flashed our passports and began the visa application process. We were the only visitors in the facility.
After we paid for our visas, we were accosted by three young machine gun-wielding representatives of a Cambodian militia. In broken English, the shortest one explained that, due to the SARS outbreak, we would be required to submit to a supervised quarantine. If we coughed or sneezed or exhibited any symptoms of pneumonic complication, we would be held pending further medical examination or turned away outright. Dan looked at me and shrugged.
The quarantine staging area was simply 20 grimy, plastic lawn chairs tucked under a tarp behind the station. We dropped our backpacks and grabbed a couple of seats. Two silent machine gun-wielding teenagers monitored our condition.
For the duration of the quarantine, Dan and I tried to remain solemn. Dan flashed hints of a smile a few times, and we both tried not to laugh. It can be exceedingly dangerous to scoff crude customs you encounter in the Third World. Especially when your immediate point of contact has a machine gun.
On the Cambodian side of the border lay typhoid, hepatitis, encephalitis, malaria, and six million land mines. It seemed ironic that the Cambodians might be concerned about two doughy Yanks bringing anything dangerous into their country, but the Vietnam War wasn’t that long ago — I’m surprised they let us in at all.
When our 20 minutes were up and we had neither coughed nor sneezed or even cleared our throats, the shortest soldier returned and smiled.
“Welcome to Cambodia,” he said.
I think about the experience a lot these days. Our president’s messaging regarding COVID-19, a cousin of SARS, seems politically skewed and opinion poll-driven. Our governor’s efforts to “cure” abortion during this pandemic are nakedly partisan and evil, even for him. And some of our neighbors are beating up Asian-Americans, conscientiously stressing social distancing while they know immigrants are still crowded together into prisons on our border with no conscience whatsoever, and averting their gazes as our sons and daughters in the Navy see captains punished for simply having conscience and conviction. The primitivism Dan and I encountered at Poi Pet that day may have been laughable, but at least it was honest — which is more than I can say for what’s passing for leadership in the United States today.
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