MERS is about to blow up in Seoul… and I’m stuck here

I have joked that the next major plague would probably have its epicenter in Seoul. Now it’s actually sort of happening and I’m super annoyed. Last week MERS has appeared on the scene. That stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. Originally it passed to humans through camel milk and meat. Now, however, it’s passing mainly from person to person.

It arrived in Gyeonggi province, south of Seoul last week, carried by a Korean who had been traveling abroad. When he went to the clinic with respiratory illness, he didn’t mention he’s been in the Middle East. It took him three visits to separate doctors offices until they caught the fact that he had this illness. In the meantime, he exposed hundreds of others. 41 cases have been confirmed in Gyeonggi, and 4 have died.

Then a doctor who was exposed to MERS came to Seoul to attend a community meeting, two meetings with other other doctors, visit the mall, and go out to dinner, exposing an estimated 1500 people before he received a quarantine order. 14 cases have now been confirmed in southern Seoul. A family member of one of the first Korean victims ignored a quarantine order and flew to Hong Kong. What a selfish knob. Hong Kong was very angry that Korea had “exported” what proved to be an infected party to them. He was caught and isolated, so no cases have been reported in HK yet. So far over 1300 exposed parties in Korea are being quarantined.

There are several factors working against the containment of this virus. First, there are very few health and safety initiatives in practice in Korea. Health inspections are extremely uncommon so hygiene in public facilities is very lax. Among the public as well, freely spitting in the streets, and neglecting to wash your hands after using the toilet is rampant. Virtually no one in the older generation covers coughs or sneezes either. For such a big, hyper modern city, personal hygiene is not emphasized much. On my trip to Hong Kong, I saw a huge contrast. Spitting is punishable by a large fine, hand sanitizer is widely available in public areas, and disinfectant sprays are used in cleaning regularly. These practices have yet to be adopted in Seoul, though disinfectants are now being used in public areas due to this outbreak.

The second factor that may exacerbate the problem is the culture of communal eating. Groups of friends and workmates will frequently eat from communal dishes. Chopsticks don’t have a lot of mouth contact with the user, but spoons do and they are used almost as frequently as chopsticks. If you share a meal with someone who has contracted MERS but hasn’t shown symptoms yet, it puts you at a high risk.

Anyway, it hasn’t blown up yet (hopefully it won’t), but I’m being a little extra cautious and enjoying some time catching up on things around the house. I am avoiding Gyeonggi and Gangnam and trying not to bite my nails (which is the biggest challenge for me, honestly). I’m also wearing a mask on public transit. Though masks are mostly useful when worn by sick individuals to keep from spreading particles via spit, I figure I may as well take the extra precaution, since research does support that it provides some extra protection.

We’re waiting to see if schools in the north start closing next week. The biggest risk in in medical facilities, but if they do keep closing schools as a precaution, who am I to argue? Those kids are undeniably dirty in their habits (as all kids are). And I can’t object to some time off– even if it is confined to my apartment. I have instant noodles, wine, and a pile of books to read.

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