MERS Scares

EDIT 6/26/15: This is a really good video from Eat Your Kimchi to calm everyone’s fears. I must say that even my Inner Hypochondriac and I have calmed down about it. The outbreak seems to already be slowing down here, and I’m pretty sure within a month or two it will be wiped out completely.

My original post follows below.

Hey, that rhymes. (Koreans pronounce it like “Mare-iss” for some reason.)

So, MERS is a thing. That exists. In Korea. In Daegu now, officially, as of yesterday. (The Daegu government website has a warning up, but when you switch the language to English, the MERS warning disappears… hmm…)

A wedding in Seoul last week. Because masks can save us from MERS. Don’t you just love that one maskless guy though? He’s so happy.

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. A coronavirus of deadly proportions, with no cure or vaccine to date and a 40% mortality rate. It’s spreading more rapidly in Korea than it ever has in the Middle East, supposedly for “unknown reasons.” But I can tell you why (prepare for The Rant of the Hypochondriac):

A) Lack of basic public hygiene. I have addressed this before, in my post about what I dislike about living in Korea. The spitting, the peeing, the coughing/sneezing into the air without even attempting to cover it, the lack of soap and towels in restrooms, the throwing of used toilet paper into garbage bins instead of flushing it… I feel like Korea is more than a little behind in terms of 21st century health precautions in spite of their state-of-the-art medical technology. Puzzling to say the least (although, granted, their economic development has occurred so rapidly in the last few decades that I think some other aspects of society are still catching up – and I mean that in a completely non-condescending way, not like “hurry up and be like America, Korea.” America has its own problems).

B) Selfishness. From Patient Zero to Patient 150 (the current number of infected as of yesterday), way too many people are only thinking of themselves. The person who brought MERS to Korea was a middle-aged businessman who took a business trip to the Middle East. When he came back and started feeling sick, he neglected to tell anyone where he’d been traveling. He bounced around to different hospitals, leaving MERS infections in his wake. Okay, maybe those mistakes could happen to anyone (does anyone ever really believe they’re going to get a deadly virus like that?) (although I’d like to know what the heck he was doing in Saudi Arabia that led him to catch MERS… kissing camels or something?).

But then more people did more stupidly selfish things. The person who shared a room with Patient Zero caught MERS, and so did his son – who then promptly left for Hong Kong and China, thus endangering two other countries simply because he didn’t feel like staying put in quarantine. If I were China or Hong Kong, I’d be pretty ticked. In my mind, that guy is damn lucky that China put him in a hospital and is treating him.

More recently, Patient 141, who I can only hope is a legitimately crazy person with mental health issues, reportedly got all worked up while waiting for his MERS test results, told people that if he had MERS, he was going to “spread it around,” and broke the lock on the hospital door so he could escape the hospital. (So that he could then go to yet another hospital the following day… and be confirmed as MERS Patient 141.) Who does that?!? Psychopaths, that’s who.

And finally, and most disturbing of all for me personally due to my current situation: a Daegu man decided to go visit his mother in Seoul – who had been diagnosed with MERS. After visiting, he returned home to Daegu… and returned to work in his district government office job for more than 2 weeks, hence coming in contact with who knows how many Daegu-ites… and he is now officially diagnosed with MERS and is in one of the hospitals here. His home is not 20 minutes from where I live.

Okay, wait. Just wait a minute. Let me make sure I heard this right. He visited his mother, whom he knew was sick with MERS… okay, fine, he can take that risk if he really wants to, although I recommend Skype or FaceTime instead. But why wasn’t his mother quarantined at that point? And then no one stopped him from coming back to Daegu?? And once he got back to Daegu, he didn’t think “Hmm, maybe I should wait a couple weeks and make sure I’m healthy before I go coughing on people at work”??? This guy’s son is currently attending a Daegu public elementary school. Children have proven to be highly susceptible to MERS after their parents become infected, yet the child is still going to school. And you know how kids are – they are the least likely to cover their mouths, ever. Selfishness, foolishness, and honestly just plain stupidity. Yeah, I said it. My Inner Hypochondriac is not always a nice person. There are few things that infuriate me in this world, but this type of thing is one of them.

C) The collectivistic culture. If it’s not selfishness, it’s the deeply ingrained, but in this case really unwise, practice of family members visiting and caring for their sick relatives in the hospital. Many of the current infected patients got sick because they were exposed to the virus in the hospital while doing what should have been left to nurses and doctors. Please note: I am NOT criticizing the collectivistic nature of Korea as a whole. I really do appreciate many things about this aspect of society here, and I think it has many benefits. Just not when there’s a deadly virus going around. Sometimes you have to draw a line, you know?

D) Hospital and government flubs. Samsung Medical Center, the TOP hospital in Seoul, has been confirmed as the leading source of the outbreak, with more than 70 cases stemming from within its walls. To which I say, what the hell?! Come on, Korea. Your best hospital can’t keep things sterile and sanitary enough to prevent the spread of a deadly virus? Patients were sharing rooms with MERS patients, family members were visiting, and the government didn’t release the list of MERS-containing hospitals until weeks after the first case. There is also a tendency to “hospital shop” here, to go from hospital to hospital to find the best one.

So basically, if this were a more severely contagious disease, half the population would be dead by now. Potentially.

… But don’t worry, friends and family! MERS can be avoided via simple hygienic practices and basic preventative measures such as washing your hands with soap and hot water, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding close contact with potentially sick people!

… Oh.


We’re screwed.

I’m partly being facetious with this post, partly venting to release my hypochondriacal stress. Logically, I don’t exactly think it’s time to panic yet (although my Inner Hypochondriac really, really wants to). The Korean government claims they’re tightening the quarantines (but I’m skeptical on that based on the Daegu guy, and the apparent mentality people have that quarantine is optional anyway). The WHO has urged the thousands of Korean schools that closed to reopen, and to those that stayed open, to carry on as usual. President Park Geun-hye has urged the public to continue their normal lives so the economy doesn’t take a huge hit. Many people don’t seem overly concerned about it, in spite of all the fear-mongering in the news. Some experts are predicting that the outbreak will die down within the next few weeks.

Actually, this is a quite fair and balanced explanation of the situation from my favorite Korean language learning resource, Talk To Me In Korean:

However, knowing that the first case in Daegu has been confirmed, and that said patient had contact with countless others before being diagnosed, is unnerving. I won’t be stocking up on food supplies and hiding out in my room or anything, but maybe it’s time for me to go buy my own mask.

P.S. Here is how my school is responding to the MERS risk – based on a school message system notification received this morning which I popped into Google Translate:

Administrative matters

1) class public and meeting schedules after June 26 are hoping you promote as scheduled, it should guide future changes when a separate memorandum

2) pursue a legitimate foreign public and if such an event Homers observe the instructions thoroughly before preventive group dedicated to the precautionary wind

3) consider the attendance at the event must be fully prepared to hand sanitizers, keep each other clean, polite guidance

4) After a public event data relating to inward website with such measures to be shared

5) Assist school staff, external trips refrain. End.

Preventive groups dedicated to the precautionary wind should do the trick. Keep each other clean, folks. End.