And The MERS Continues… (but not because of the camels)

This week Korea reached over 100 MERS patients, more than the UAE. Almost 4000 exposed people are in quarantine. And Korea has quarantined all the camels in their zoo even though none of them came from the Middle East. They were all born in Korea or Australia.

Sigh. Some of the handling of MERS is a bit… incompetent. They issued public health warnings about consuming camel products. Because camel meat and milk are staples to the Korean diet! (No.) It’s quite obvious that camels are not the source of all these newly contracted cases. And even though no foreign residents have been confirmed to have MERS yet, they are also encouraging people to stay out of neighborhood with larger foreign populations, especially those with families from the Middle East.

After Korea wouldn’t let WHO assist at the beginning of the outbreak, I started to lose a little bit of faith in the way they are handling this. They finally did let WHO in, but only after it started passing from person to person on a larger scale. Most of the new cases have been contracted at medical care facilities. In Korea because medical care is so cheap and widely available (see my post on going to the doctor in Korea), people often go for smaller things like a cold or a bad headache. This has exposed many people to patients who had the disease.

Korea has come under fire for its mishandling of the disease. It took them about two weeks to start introducing health measures and issuing warnings. To me, it would make more sense for Korea to crack down on public hygiene (see my usual complaints about spitting in the streets, coughing and sneezing uncovered, not having proper soaps or hot water in public restrooms, lack of disinfectant used in cleaning public spaces), instead of making the Korean-born camels suffer. Those public health measures are ultimately what beat back SARS in China and Hong Kong.

Last week I asked the staff at my school if they had cleaning supplies (so I could wash up behind my little nose-pickers). They handed me widow wash. They did not have disinfectant in their regular supplies. A school. With children as young as four does not disinfect the classrooms. (????!!!!!!???!!) I had to go out and buy my own cleaning products– though I was unable to find any plain old disinfectant spray at the markets. I ended up with bathroom cleaner and hand sanitizer that I bought with my own money.

MERS is lingering on longer than it should without any strict measures to stop it. Ultimately it comes down the the split I see so often in Korean society: this disconnect between a very old-fashioned society where the oldest members dictate how things should be run, and a fast expanding economy attempting to globalize and modernize. New world problems are being met with largely traditionalist thinking. But Seoul is too big for that. And problems like MERS really tests the infrastructure of this still very new democracy.

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