4 ObMERSvations from a Local Expat

by Mike Still

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is a dangerous virus.  There is no cure for this deadly pathogen primarily located in the Middle East.  When South Korea’s patient 0 was diagnosed panic swept through local populations as the blame game began.  South Korean officials issued apologies (purportedly for misinforming the public and not for messing up the initial quarantine) and Koreans became even more xenophobic.

The most important thing to do is wash your hands frequently.  Treat this as you would any flu season.

The story begins
The first patient came to Korea feeling ill and made it through immigration without issue.  He then proceeded to stop at two different medical centers before finally being placed in isolation.  Over the next few weeks South Korea would see dozens of new cases of MERS.  A country of 50 million had less than 150 diagnosed cases with only 14 deaths.   More than 4,000 people were placed in isolation after contact with these 150 individuals as almost 3,000 schools closed! [as of June 14th]mers

Masks sold like wildfire.  The typical subway knickknacks were replaced with blue surgical masks while hand sanitizer disappeared from the shelves taking as long as 1 week to restock.  Koreans warned each other not to go near Itaewon (the foreign friendly area) because supposedly WE were the cause.  Remember those 150 diagnosed cases?  Well, 100% of them are Korean.

This outbreak is serious but not nearly as bad as the Korean media is implying.  The overreaction lies largely in how the virus is spread.  WHO (World Health Organization) stated “transmissions have mainly occurred through close contact, such as living with or caring for an infected person.”  This is why all 150 cases are “currently confined around health facilities… It has been occurring among hospital patients, visiting family members and medical staff.”

Only .0003% of the population has MERS and .000028% of people living in South Korea have died from it.  That’s LESS likely than the odds of you getting struck by lightning (weighing in at 1/700,000 or .00014%)  So what does that all mean?

1. The disease is confined to hospitals.  Don’t go to one unless its an emergency!
In western cultures this is always the case.  Don’t burden your hospital with unnecessary patients.  But in Korea there’s cheap healthcare (and apparent lack of trust in their primary doctor.)  Koreans tend to shop around and get second or third opinions.  It is also the standard for Korean families to take care of their own loved ones at the hospital.  This can include anything from keeping them company to changing & dressing wounds or even bedpans.  Enter MERS and its no wonder these untrained caregivers are contracting the virus.

2. Wearing masks is a fashion statement.
Koreans are all about fashion and this is no different.  They are a cookie cutter community and wearing masks is the “cool” thing to do.  Walking around the streets you’ll notice studded and screen printed “surgical” masks.  The masks are an effective way to show others that you are following the rules.  Masks give you minor protection from diseases but they need to be worn properly and you still need to maintain good hygiene.  They COULD be effective at preventing you from spreading the disease but if you are actually infected the correct procedure is to stay in isolation not simply wear a mask.  Don’t forget that masks certainly are NOT effective when they are constantly fidgeted with or pulled up and down eighteen times an hour.

3. In the words of Douglas Adams.  Don’t Panic
The MERS outbreak is tiny.  While it has potential to kill it has so far only claimed the lives of the elderly and the sick.  It is limited to hospitals and the best thing to do is go about your life as normal.  In this same time period more people have died from freak accidents, sinking ships, and influenza than MERS.  Remember that only .0003% of us actually have it.

4. Open the schools!
Nearly 3,000 schools have closed largely due to parental panic & resulting pressure on administration.  WHO has said that this is a mindless measure that simply feeds the paranoia.  As a teacher we should be teaching the youth how to react appropriately.  Wash you hands, use hand sanitizer and maintain a healthy level of hygiene.  Don’t run away and hide!  If you are lucky enough to be a teacher with an unexpected MERScation then I recommend using that time to go to the typically busy areas like Everland, Lotte World or Jeju Island.  You can be sure the paranoid Koreans won’t be there in force.

Right now its important to go about your normal daily life.  While unlikely that the disease will become a serious issue in South Korea there is always a chance.  If and when that happens you should still be fine but it might be worth jetting out of Korea temporarily or living as a hermit for a few days.  Until then I’m gonna go enjoy this beautiful weather at the empty Han River Park!



Edit: Data on MERS is evolving constantly.  All statistics were based on news articles found below at the time of writing this article.  Please comment below with updates as they come in.


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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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