Korean news is abuzz with continuous updates on the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in the country – which currently – as of the morning of June 4 – stands at 35 confirmed cases and over 1300 potentials in quarantine, a combined figure of those in standard quarantine and home quarantine.
Among the news is word of a quite frightening increase in mask sales, reports of schools closing and events being canceled, people refusing quarantine, and more, as netizens raise their voices in protest at the frustrating handling of the situation by officials.
Update: The total number of potentials increased to 1667 from June 3 to June 4, but 62 have been cleared, for a total of 1605.
1. Health authorities not revealing hospitals or regions where MERS has emerged
Possibly the most frustrating fact of the matter is that health authorities are not revealing the names of the hospitals or regions where MERS cases have emerged, and protest has risen sharply on this front, saying that the hospitals need to be named so citizens can be on alert.
During a briefing that took place on June 2, Kwon Joon Wook, chief of the MERS management and strategic planning team, stated that it would “raise unnecessary alarm.” The Minister of Health and Welfare, Moon Hyung Pyo, took the same stance, saying, “Not going to a hospital because of fear of close contact and infection is going overboard.”
One particular community post by a netizen made a headline for hitting the nail on the head:
“It’s not that we won’t go to that hospital..You need to tell us the hospital name so if we’ve been there we can keep an eye out for suspicious symptoms and report it. Reports are saying to report close contact with any diagnosed patient, but how are we supposed to know who’s a diagnosed patient and who’s not? You frustrating people..”
Lists of the hospitals and regions where MERS has emerged have been making their rounds online, although they are not official and the accuracy of them cannot be vouched for.
2. Government quick to act on people spreading false rumors
Ironically, with no information about hospitals being released, the government stated earlier on May 30 that it would take severe action against those spreading false rumors about MERS, including information about hospitals. At the time there were 13 confirmed cases. Kwon Joon Wook stated that based on the investigations going on, he did not believe there were going to be more cases, and said, “There are unconfirmed routes of infection, treatment methods, preventative measures, and other information going around, but they are not true. Those who intentionally spread false information will be investigated and immediate and severe measures will be taken.”
On June 3, police booked a man in his 40s in Gwangju, for sending messages to his acquaintances with names of hospitals supposedly handling MERS cases. After the messages were sent, one of the hospitals, upon receiving a torrent of calls, reported the situation to the police.
The man is now being charged with defamation and obstruction of business. He said to the police, “I thought it was true and wanted to let my acquaintances know.”
3. Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went and had a field day?
The first MERS patient in Korea was confirmed on May 20. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged a warning. However, according to a report by JTBC on June 3, the employees at the organization had a two-day field day, which started on May 20. JTBC added, “They even had a notice released to employees to inform anyone who calls that everyone is out.”
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention denied this report, saying that May 20 was the day of an event to commend quarantine officers of merit and a workshop to brainstorm ways to improve quarantine facilities. They said, “After hearing of the first confirmed case of MERS, we quickly wrapped up the event and returned to our duties,” and added that the field day portion of the event was scheduled for May 21, but was canceled.”
4. Minister of Health and Welfare says to wear a mask, then says that it’s not necessary
Moon Hyung Pyo, the Minister of Health and Welfare, got caught up in a “mask controversy,” after he stated on June 2, in response to news that there was a shortage of masks, that “I think [masks] aren’t really a necessary measure to take specifically because of MERS.”
However, this statement came after Moon Hyung Pyo’s previous statement on May 31 that everyone should “take preventative measures such as washing hands, maintaining manners when coughing, and wearing masks in public places.”
5. Ministry of Public Safety and Security says only an epidemic when 3 million people infected?
A representative of the Ministry of Public Safety and Security stated in response to the current MERS situation, “While we are taking measures across the country, it’s not serious,” and added, “In the case of the swine flu, the National Emergency Management Agency would only go into operation after it has spread across the country to 3 million people. It hasn’t reached the point for the National Emergency Management Agency to step in.”
After this statement hit the news, criticism rained down on the ministry, saying that for a virus that with an estimated fatality rate of 40 percent, their attitude isn’t appropriate, comparing it to the swine flu with a fatality rate of 0.07 percent.
The Ministry of Public Safety and Security then returned with an additional statement, saying that just because they explained with a similar example from the past, it doesn’t mean they would apply the same countermeasures.