Cavalier S. Koreans add to Mers problem

LONG WAY TO GO: The Mers incident reminds the writer of the novel World War Z, adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt (pictured). Seeing how rapidly the Mers outbreak has spread, South Korea can learn some valuable lessons.


    Jun 18, 2015

    Cavalier S. Koreans add to Mers problem

    WATCHING how the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, otherwise known as camel flu, has seriously affected South Korea, one wonders how a land where the only camels are safely ensconced in zoos could become a breeding ground for a disease supposedly endemic to the Middle East.

    The immediate, plausible answer is that the Korean people have not developed immunity against the deadly virus.

    Another compelling reason is that emergency rooms in Korean hospitals are often teeming with patients and their families. Under the circumstances, people in emergency rooms are easily exposed to contagious germs.

    Seeing how rapidly the outbreak has spread - the latest reports cite 20 dead, 162 infected and more than 6,500 quarantined - it occurred to me that we can learn some valuable lessons.

    First, we should overhaul the emergency room system so that only those who need emergency treatment are admitted.

    Second, like other advanced countries, only nurses should take care of patients and not the patients' families.

    Third, we should stop visiting multiple hospitals because if we are germ carriers, we could spread the epidemic exponentially. In South Korea, you pay only US$3 (S$4) or US$4 per visit thanks to an excellent public medical insurance system, so patients tend to frequent hospitals unnecessarily.

    There is a whole lot of other things that we can learn from this ongoing disaster. The foremost lesson is that the government should never hide the truth.

    Experts agree that, had the authorities disclosed the facts earlier, the spread of infection could have been checked. In a media conference, an official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare asserted that even the United States government would not have disclosed everything to the American public.

    This comment infuriated Korean-Americans. Korean newspapers published in the US unanimously condemned the health official, retorting: "You have inadvertently confessed your ignorance of the States. The US government does not hide anything from its people in the event of an outbreak."

    Even as we watch the epidemic sweep across the nation, we hear that an infected secondary school teacher could have come into contact with 381 people. An infected ambulance driver has potentially exposed 216 people, including 76 patients he attended to, according to reports.

    If so, the number of infected people will increase significantly. In that sense, Mers resembles the widespread attributes of the leftist or rightist ideology in our society, which is equally contagious and dangerous.

    The scary thing is that you never know how many people are infected and who these infected people are, even though they may be walking among us.

    Consequently, you become suspicious of others, avoid contact with them and become hostile to them because anybody could be a carrier. Under the circumstances, fear, distrust and hostility are rampant in our society.

    We criticise the government for its incompetence and clumsiness in dealing with the outbreak in its early stage. However, we are part of the problem too.

    Some quarantined people went out and contacted other people despite instructions to the contrary. Those people seemed to be unaware that their behaviour was legally punishable because they may have unwittingly transmitted the deadly virus.

    Someone made a humorous remark on the Internet that since Koreans put on a mask not for others but for themselves, once they find they are infected, they take off their masks. The rationale is: "If it is too late to protect myself, why bother to wear a mask?"

    Surely, not all Koreans would behave like this, yet this joke cuts deeply and makes me feel ashamed. We should abandon such selfish attitudes and mentalities.

    Once again, the Mers incident reminds us of the fact that we are seriously short of experienced professionals who can cope with emergencies adroitly. History proves that incompetent amateurs only ruin things because they are clumsy and do not know what to do in times of crisis.

    In South Korea, you can get a position even without experience. You think you can learn while working, but you are wrong. Inevitably, you will make many mistakes due to a lack of experience. Meanwhile, people around you suffer.

    Watching the epidemic devastate both our society and our minds, I have realised that we still have a long way to go to become a truly advanced country.

    The outbreak reminds me of the novel World War Z, in which a zombie virus spreads all over the world, infecting all humanity in an instant. It certainly would give me the creeps if our country was suddenly full of the walking dead.

    We are fortunate that it is not a zombie virus. Otherwise, many of us would already have turned into flesh-eating monsters. As for the camel flu, we shall overcome it soon.


    The writer is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.