Living in the shadow of MERS
South Korean citizens move cautiously amid country’s first outbreak of the often-fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

Long known as an uncompromising city of extremes, the bustling South Korean capital of Seoul has been stopped in its tracks.

In the last few days, more than 10 million inhabitants have faced a foreign visitor invisible to the naked eye – be it under an increasingly intense summer sun or the glare of nocturnal neon.

Prior to May 20, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome had never been diagnosed in South Korea. Caused by a strain of coronavirus, it first emerged as a flu in Saudi Arabia three years ago, before news of a 40 percent fatality rate began to raise international alarm.

In less than three weeks, it has claimed six South Korean lives and infections are speeding up -- the country’s number of cases jumped over the weekend to reach 87.

Back in May, there was reasonable expectation that the outbreak could be contained through quarantine measures. The country’s first person to test positive for MERS was a 68-year-old man who had returned from a trip to the Middle East earlier in the month -- but the inability to adequately isolate those who came into contact with him led even President Park Geun-hye to admit that the country’s initial response was "insufficient.”

Since then, more than 2,500 people have been quarantined in one form or another but stories have been all too common of individuals strolling free when they were supposed to be isolated -- in one case an infected doctor is thought to have potentially exposed thousands, while another man got as far as China before being diagnosed.

Bemusement among members of the public then turned to genuine concern. Protective facemasks vanished from convenience store shelves. Ordinarily packed department stores became eerily quiet. A sneeze on the subway was now enough to send fellow commuters scurrying.

As fears of further contamination began to spread, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon decided enough was enough. Thursday night, he declared that he would "devise the city’s own countermeasures to protect citizens.”

Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo hit back a day later, accusing the mayor of causing "unnecessary public misunderstanding and concerns” by making it seem as if central government efforts were inadequate.

But mistrust of government policy was clear for all to see. On social media, netizens shared maps of hospitals thought to be affected, ignoring official attempts to protect the facilities’ identities.

But, this past weekend, the government finally caved in and disclosed the names of all the hospitals linked to the outbreak.

The political damage had already been done. President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating dropped six percentage points last week, having barely rebounded from last year’s devastating Sewol ferry tragedy -- which remains a thorn in the public’s perception of safety in South Korea generally. A Gallup Korea poll of 1,005 adults between Tuesday and Thursday rated confidence in Park at 34 percent.

"Insecurity within the population has been increasing by the day because the government refused to disclose the list of [affected] hospitals for so long,” Lee Jihye of The Korea Times said as she leaned back to relax in a distinctly uncrowded local restaurant after another busy shift reporting on the unfolding panic.

"It’s no wonder that the president’s support has fallen,” she told Anadolu Agency.

Over the weekend, mobile phones across the country rang out with an emergency text message.

In an effort to reconnect with the people, the notification contained the kind of basic hygiene advice that would be associated with any seasonal flu.

As the seeds of panic began to spread, some reverted to more traditional practices. South Korea may be at the forefront of innovation, but its people are also ever willing to turn to old-fashioned herbal remedies.

There is a concoction for everything from hair-thinning to hangovers.

And to conquer MERS, it was suggested that an onion placed in each corner of a room should keep the virus away. For others, only watered down kimchi in each nostril would do the trick. One 10 o’clock news anchor appeared to be stifling a laugh as he went through a list of remedies.

"It was funny to see my dad walk around with a bag of onions,” said Lee.

"As ridiculous as I thought it was, as long as it makes my parents feel secure I can just laugh it off and live with it.”

Before there was even a distinction between South and North Korea, local people were forced to share whispers. From the Japanese occupation to post-war dictatorships, rumors have been seen as a threat to the peninsula’s rulers.

Even today, the South’s National Police Agency is taking false rumors very seriously. At least two people have already been arrested for making inaccurate claims about hospitals allegedly tainted by the outbreak.

But the authorities would do well to focus on providing "as much information as they can,” according to Professor Damien Spry of Hanyang University’s Department of Media and Communications.

"In the absence of authoritative and reliable information, people turn to other sources. Communication online is impossible to control,” Spry pointed out. "When stories go viral, they spread a lot further and faster than actual viruses.”

The official stance from the outset of this outbreak has been that MERS is not actually that easy to contract outside of a healthcare setting.

Regardless, the effect of this disease has been undeniably potent. Nearly 2,000 schools were closed Monday, many weekend events were cancelled or postponed, and even drink-drivers have been able to escape breathalyzers in areas where police have suspended sobriety tests.

Against this backdrop, such everyday symptoms as colds, sniffles, and coughs were thrust under a daily microscope.

Housewife Lee Hwan-joon told Anadolu Agency that she feared for the worst when her two young children fell ill with flu-like symptoms within a couple of days of each other last week.

"The doctor told us to come back in three days,” she said with trepidation, as this was the first time for her to speak publicly on the matter.

"I heard different things about the big hospitals and wasn’t sure what the situation would be. I am scared of course.”

Meanwhile, life goes on. 10 million people cannot easily hide, even in a sprawling city like Seoul. But they can proceed with caution.

Policemen are wearing masks. So are airport officials, office workers, and children – only lowering their veils to chat with friends or eat snacks. Whether such products are offering any better protection against MERS than onions or kimchi is not clear.

Along with grieving loved ones and a government under pressure, South Korea’s MERS outbreak has reaffirmed that fear is contagious - and that people’s trust, once lost, is as elusive as the truth they seek.

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Last Modified: 2015-06-08 08:42:34
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