THE BLOG From HuffPost Korea
06/03/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

MERS, the Korean Government and Its 'Ghost Stories'

Read on The Huffington Post Korea

As noted in JTBC's coverage:

The first person to be infected with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in the Middle East is referred to as the primary patient; people who are infected by this person are referred to as secondary patients; those infected by secondary patients are referred to as tertiary patients, so on and so forth. There have been about 1,000 confirmed cases of MERS around the world, yet there are still no reports of tertiary patients.

This was the news up until yesterday, when a tertiary patient emerged in South Korea. Clearly this is one of the first known occurrences of a tertiary patient, yet the media is simply reporting it as 'the first outbreak.' At this time, all the members of the press referring to this tertiary patient as 'the first...' are spreading false information.

The MERS situation is reaching a climax. The press is spreading false information out of ignorance. The government plans to deal with these groundless rumors strictly, yet as of yesterday morning, the Blue House (i.e.. the presidential residence) was still unsure of the exact number of infected patients. Reports that MERS is spreading at a certain hospital are circulating on social media sites. In a word, it's chaos.

If the government really wants to cut down on these 'MERS ghost stories' (i.e., false rumors), what they have to do is clear: They have to meticulously outline, and continuously report the movements of the first infected patient, the patient who found his way into China, and any patients who were out in public while still unaware of their infection.

Because the government isn't currently doing this, these 'ghost stories' continue to spread. Fears about when, where, and how one might get infected by MERS are spreading a thousand times faster than MERS itself. MERS isn't a fast-spreading disease; according to the WHO (World Health Organization), as long as you don't get closer than two meters (about six feet) from an infected person, MERS does not spread through the air. That is why the movements of infected patients before they were quarantined need to be clearly outlined and made public.

Let's think about the result of doing so:

  1. People whose movements align with infected patients become aware of this fact and can receive the appropriate treatment at healthcare facilities.
  2. People who had contact with, but never approached within two meters of an infected person can feel a bit more assured, while at the same time remain wary.
  3. Above and beyond, people will not get swept up unnecessarily in rumors.

Is there a faster, more effective way to combat the MERS crisis than this? South Korea is a country where almost everyone can read and is exposed to the media, with health care facilities spread across the country. If there is one thing South Korea lacks in the fight against MERS, it is accurate information. Because this information is lacking, the government is producing and circulating information in this 'ghost story' fashion.

At the end of last year when the Ebola crisis struck West Africa, a doctor who was volunteering in the area left from Guinea and entered America. He was confident that he wasn't infected and moved around from place to place in a normal fashion. However, when he began to feel feverish with the chills, he quarantined himself and checked himself into a hospital. In actuality, Ebola doesn't spread until symptoms emerge. It is not an overstatement, therefore, to say that the possibility that he spread the virus to others was nearly zero. Yet the New York Times collected and published detailed facts about where and how he traveled, what he did in what places, etc etc.

Let's look at that New York Times article, 'What the New York City Ebola Patient Was Doing Before He Was Hospitalized.' Was publicizing this information an effort to drag this patient through the mud? No, it wasn't. In fact, it was done so to prevent the villainizing and bashing of the patient. Once people knew exactly where the patient was and what he was doing, they could pay more attention to their own health conditions. Conversely, people who didn't overlap with the patient's movements could have some peace of mind and remain calm.

This is the exact attitude that we need at this moment. If you don't want rumors spreading (à la, 'it's moved from Pyeongtaek to Daejeon;' 'it's spreading like wildfire at this or that hospital'), all you have to do is systemize the kind of information that can put an end to these rumors and release it to the public. This and only this will allow people to fully understand the situation and feel assured. Or, if they're worried that they may have been infected, they can report themselves at the appropriate time and receive treatment.

What would have happened if the American government feared the New York Times' 'false rumors' and buried all information, the same way the Korean government is dealing with things now?

Right now, the government doesn't trust the public. At the same time, the public doesn't trust the government. At this time, information is the key to resolving this issue. That's because the government is holding all the key information. Publicizing this information is the first step to regaining the public's trust. While withholding the information they have, the government is only making the problem worse by calling the releases to the public (formed in an effort to grasp this puzzling situation), 'ghost stories.' Increasing the seriousness of the penalties also makes the problem worse.

The secretive nature of South Korea's government is about to become a global headache. Let's look at one piece of news recently published:

On June 1st (local time), the Hong Kong Health Organization stated that they would strengthen their disease spread prevention and medical examinations of travelers, in an effort to stop the spread of MERS, after Korean Mr. J (44) was positively diagnosed with MERS. Any person showing signs of MERS, such as fever or cold symptoms, will be labeled as 'suspicious' and subjected to close examinations.

Because of the government's pointless 'secretism,' everyone heading to Hong Kong with cold symptoms will be labelled as suspicious, and probably subjected to quarantined examinations. Why in the world is the government not publishing information related to MERS? Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong Health Department expressed a similar opinion: "If information on which hospitals treated MERS patients were publicized, we could inform Hong Kong citizens traveling to South Korea which hospitals to avoid."

They continue, "We have continuously asked the Korean government to publicize the information, but because they are not complying, we have been forced to strengthen all our disease prevention and control standards concerning Korean travelers." In other words, their only recourse is to view every Korean as a potential MERS patient.

You expect 'youke' (travelers) to come to Korea and spread money around while you maintain these kinds disease management measures? Wrong. Korea no longer seems like an advanced country to the Chinese. Concerns that the South Korean government's idiotic authoritarian 'secretism' may adversely affect the economy are certainly relevant.

Korean society doesn't know how to deal with 'probability.' Every problem starts from there. Getting infected by a disease, while it may have something to do with hygiene, is mostly just bad luck; in other words, that person ran into some bad luck. How should we deal with this bad luck, both individually and as a society?

There is a mentality of regarding these 'people afflicted with bad luck' as 'dirtied people' and chasing them away. This mentality is spreading in South Korea. Let's accept this as fact for now. Conversely, when individuals have some bad luck and get infected with something, they try to hide their situation. Even though he knew with some certainty that he was infected with MERS, Mr. A displayed this mentality when he boarded a plane to China. He is currently under quarantine in China.

Perusing the Internet, there are many voices supporting Mr. A. Opinions such as "He couldn't properly use his sick leave at work without fear of repercussions, so what was he supposed to do?" "The mortality rate of MERS is 40 percent, but the mortality rate of taking sick leave is 100 percent," were not uncommon.

This viewpoint that because Korean society is not very accepting of 'people afflicted with bad luck,' which forces these people to have to deny the facts, ultimately allows for the interpretation that the actions of these people are unassailable. "South Korea has always been that sort of place, if you want to survive there you've got to understand the situation and act accordingly; given that kind of environment do those of you telling this salaryman not to go on that business trip even know the hardships of life?" These kinds of comments are circulating the Internet.

What's even harder to understand is the existence of people who view ascribing to that viewpoint, or taking advantage of that viewpoint, as progressive. "Why are you wagging your finger at defenseless people; shouldn't the blame go to the government, who's making a mess of dealing with this crisis?" This sums up their viewpoint. Of course, placing all the blame on the individual would be unjust, yet I think that kind of attitude is exactly what is making this MERS crisis even worse.

Of course, what we are trying to fight is the allopathic urge to brand patients and chase them away. Yet it is also a mistake to believe that it's reasonable to not assign any blame to people if they do wrong. Just as the mentality of chastising 'people afflicted with bad luck' is unscientific, hush-hushing and covering up your problem when you've 'been afflicted with bad luck' is equally unscientific, and must be criticized as well. We have to conquer both of these unscientific attitudes.

First of all, the government has to trust the public because the government is holding more information. Release information on the movements of MERS patients to the public. If you do that, the 'ghost stories' will go away on their own.

At the same time, publicize through all newspapers and broadcasts that you should wash your hands well, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and use a tissue or a hand towel to cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. When you cough, you should cover your mouth with your elbow or shoulder and not your hands; you should take care not to touch things like elevator buttons that come into contact with many other hands. It's time to publicize facts like these extensively.

This 'illumination' makes light of people's intelligence? It objectifies, ignores, and treats them like the ignorant dregs of society? I cannot understand people who haphazardly make this conclusion. Rather, it is 'illuminating' to respect the possibility that while people can become a spreader of the disease, at the same time they can make an effort and tackle the issue hygienically. Illumination is not negligence; it is respect. We cannot go on living alone in this society, and the overwhelming affirmation that makes it possible to progress forward is the enlightenment of the public.

People have free will. We make conclusions and act on our own. We possess the power to reflect on our actions. I cannot for the life of me understand why the request of people infected with a contagious disease to recognize the danger of the disease and deal with it accordingly is criticized and called 'conservative moralism.' As long as people fail to act in the right manner by means of their own will and judgment, civilization cannot be maintained. If the fundamental demand of maintaining civilization and cleanliness is conservatism, I will firmly draw a line with unscientific progress unconcerned with the notion of hygiene. I have no need for that kind of 'dirty' progressivism.

The government has to outline and publicize the movements of those infected with MERS. Only this will allow the public to feel at ease. Only this will allow the 'ghost stories' to subside. Only this will allow the public to control the dangerous infectious disease themselves. Only this will allow South Korea to recover some of the respect lost to the Chinese regions and the rest of the world as well.

The problem is the government's authoritarianism, and the warped world view of those in the progressive camp who accept this authoritarianism as a natural concept. The media has to overcome this authoritarianism, demand the publication of information, and at the same time accept the fact that people are not weak victims, but rather have the potential to become frightening vessels of disease. They have to actively step forward into 'illumination.'

Let's create a South Korea that respects science, protects human rights, conquers authoritarianism, and maintains hygiene and cleanliness. Let's use this crisis as an opportunity. We demand the release of the government's about-face decision and detailed information.

This post was originally published on HuffPost Korea and was translated into English.