A lot of you have been extending concern for my present location in South Korea – land of the MERS epidemic. I’m here to set your mind at ease.
First off, there’s no epidemic. Korea: calm down. You’ve once again blown this out of proportion. Yes, there have been 6 confirmed deaths, and yes there are 87 actual cases with 1,632 suspected cases, but the 2,508 in quarantine isn’t even strict quarantine (though we’ll get to that in a second). Basically, the news has been full of fear mongering to rile up the hypochondriacs.
For a brief history, MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) isn’t exactly a new kinda news. It had its first outbreaks in (you guessed it) the Middle East back in 2012. It has no known cure, and as such has a 40% mortality rate. That said, most of those mortalities affect the very young, very old, or already sick.
Under basic sanitation practices, it’s not that easy to spread human to human, although it can be contracted through contact with camels – hence Korea’s boycotting of anything camel and national emergency alert text messages warning against eating camel meat (where do you even find camel meat here?! I have a hard enough time getting cheap beef).
Korea’s MERS Patient 0 was in Saudi Arabia riding camels when he was infected (thus the reason for complete camel paranoia and quarantine of the poor zoo camels who have no idea why they’re being hated on). Noticing that he was feeling not so hot when he got back to Korea, he went to three different hospitals (exposing everyone in these hospitals to it) before it could be diagnosed (he remarkably forgot to mention he’d been abroad in Saudi Arabia when doctors were questioning him).
Since then, a mass hysteria has broken out among Koreans. In addition to the mass national emergency text alert about camels, the government has also warned us all to wash our hands and cover our mouths when we cough.
Lemme just take a moment to dwell on this because this is key in the spread of MERS here in Korea as opposed to other countries. “Wash your hands”. “Cover your mouth when you cough”. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, these are practices so rare that the government had to guide its people by the hand to tell them not to be gross. If it could tell them to stop hawking up goobers into the street too that’d be great.
In fact if I were to make a presumption, it would be that Korea has been hit with MERS harder than other places because it has very poor sanitation practices: spitting everywhere, throwing toilet paper into the garbage instead of the toilet, not having soap available in bathrooms, communal sharing of food platters…it’s a territory ripe for easy spread of disease.
Over 500 schools nation-wide have shut down, either at the request of parents or by decision of the school itself. Other schools have had parents buy entire homerooms hand sanitizer for their children’s classmates. My school has issued an official request for all students to wear face masks. Let it be noted that maybe 3 kids in a class will be wearing one, 5 others will have them on their desk, and the others don’t give a crap and put things in their mouths, sneeze freely, and cough at their heart’s content, hands limply by their sides.
Some schools have requested that their teachers wear masks while they teach. Luckily I’m not expected to do that, although I have been seen about town wearing mine while on crowded buses.
To be honest though, given the media freak out, there aren’t that many more people walking around with masks than usual. What I have noticed though is a decline in crowds – people do seem to be going out less. (A couple of friends also confirmed this from their recent weekend excursion in Seoul). What it seems like is that people are self-quarantining.
Which, to bring me back to that, makes another excellent point of interest for the situation: the people who have been exposed to MERS, who are supposedly supposed to be under quarantine, aren’t exactly practicing it responsibly. They still go to work, go outside, and basically go about their daily lives. An infected doctor gave a symposium and exposed the entire (knowing) crowd to MERS.
The problem is that these quarantines are not being enforced. They are merely “suggested”. While the government has considered making them mandatory, it has yet to take action. If I were to make an observation, I’d say that the wishy-washy attitude those exposed to the virus have towards their own self-quarantine is what elevates the nation’s level of panic. Anyone could have come into contact with it; it’s impossible to know because – *Twilight Zone music* – they’re all out there.
In the meantime, many group activities have been cancelled. My Regional Professional Development Program meetings have been cancelled indefinitely. People have been warned against congregating in crowds or in crowded places.
That said, I’m not too worried. I’m a homebody anyway, so this is just cementing my natural inclinations to stay indoors and be a social hermit. All I’m hoping is that this doesn’t affect my immigration when I try and go back to Canada…