If you're at all up on the news right now, you've probably heard about the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic currently hitting South Korea.
Speaking from a foreigner's perspective, there are a few things that I have to say on the matter. Let me just start by saying, however, that I am not an expert. I'm an English teacher. I don't pretend to know how viruses work. I'm just commenting so that those close to me can kind of start to understand the situation (or lack thereof) here in the ROK.
First, some basics on MERS. According to multiple sources, this all started because a businessman went on a trip to the Middle East and caught the corona virus known as MERS. Currently, there is no vaccine and no cure. It causes respiratory issues, fever, and (possibly) death.
Now, when this man came back to Seoul, he thought he just had a bad cold. Isn't that always how those zombie movies start? He went from hospital to hospital with no luck in curing his cold. It wasn't until the third hospital he visited that the doctor looked at his travel history and tested him for MERS.
Yes, you read that right. Two doctors saw this very sick man and neither of them looked at where he had travelled in the past month. That's oversight number one.
After the man was quarantined, it took another week or two before the government acknowledged that there was a problem. Two. Weeks. At this point, they said that he had visited some hospitals, but they wouldn't release the names of the hospitals because they didn't want to "tarnish the great reputation of those institutes."
Yes, you read that right as well. Eventually, the government was forced to release the names of the hospitals he had visited. But at this point, it was too late. The virus had already spread to several other people in those hospitals, and then to other hospitals in the area due to patient movement. The first couple of deaths occurred, although only in elderly people with underlying respiratory issues already present.
At this point, face masks sales in Seoul skyrocketed (7 times, according to some sources). People started placing hand sanitizer in every room of office buildings. Schools started closing their doors to handle the spread.
Even my school, a private kindergarten outside of the primary affected area, decided to close down for three days. We also had the whole school sanitized, had bottles of hand sanitizer put into our classrooms, and had to teach lessons on how to properly wash your hands.
Now, knowing all of that, what do I think about the MERS epidemic?
First and foremost, I think the government did not do its job to protect the citizens of South Korea. I feel that there was a lot of waffling on whose job it was to take care of the problem. In that time, the spread worsened. In addition, they were attempting to protect hospitals when they should have released the names right away. This would have allowed people to acknowledge that they might have come into contact with the virus and to take necessary precautions. Instead, they decided to "track the cellphones" of the quarantined people to try to lessen the spread and to make sure that they were remaining in their homes.
Second, the media blew everything extremely out of proportion. I understand caution, but there was a lot of fear mongering going on through Korean news outlets. I was told not to go outside, not to eat outside, not to leave my house unless I had to, not to go out in public, not to ride the metro, etc. Even my Korean coworkers were telling me to stay home for the whole five days that ended up being my weekend. Really, the disease is not that contagious. It's spread primarily through bodily fluids, so washing your hands and covering coughs and sneezes is enough to bring MERS down.
Which brings me to my next point: about halfway through the outbreak, there was an emergency alert sent out to tell people to wash their hands frequently and to cover their coughs and sneezes. Yup, an emergency alert from the government to tell people to wash their hands and cover their coughs and sneezes.
Why is that necessary? Because Koreans simply don't. I cannot begin to express how many times I've seen people cough or sneeze on the metro without covering their mouth or turning away from others. I've also seen sick people take off their face masks, sneeze onto other people, and then put their face mask back on! I've also only seen a handful of people was their hands after going to the bathroom. It's just not common here. One of my fellow teachers actually had to teach her students to wash their hands if they sneeze into them. These kids aren't being taught that anywhere else.
On top of that, Koreans are very much a sharing culture. And I get it, I really do. It's awesome. But if someone is sick...maybe, just maybe they shouldn't be eating out of the same bowl as a bunch of not-sick individuals. And maybe, just maybe, people shouldn't spit on the ground (indoors and out).
Overall, I feel like this is a chance for Korea to learn a lesson about how they handle a potential epidemic. It's training wheels, so to speak. What they have is a disease that isn't massively deadly (as of writing, only 9 are confirmed dead). It's the opportunity to get a handle on this situation and prepare for future epidemics.
In this day and age, the world is significantly smaller. Travel is more prevalent. And with travel comes diseases. Diseases that Korea can't handle right now. With its current grasp on hygiene and outbreak management, Korea could be dealt a significant blow to its population with a disease like SARS or even something more deadly.
But to be perfectly honest, I don't see this working out well for Korea in the end. I want to be cautiously optimistic, but it's hard. South Korea didn't learn from the numerous ferry disasters in the past, and the Sewol tragedy happened. They didn't learn from numerous building collapses due to lax safety standards, and now Lotte World is falling apart on its patrons.
Korean officials need to see this situation and learning from it. But I don't see it working out well in the end.
Only time will tell, though.
The Wall Street Journal
Writer, Photographer, Dream-Seeker