South Korea Mers outbreak: Be safe, not sorry

South Korean students wearing masks to protect against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) standing behind a tourist as he poses for photographs at the Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
South Korean students wearing masks to protect against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) standing behind a tourist as he poses for photographs at the Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

Barely a month after moving to Seoul, my husband and I are wondering if we should send our five-year-old daughter back to Singapore.

Anticipating the chaos and panic that would ensue after news got out that a hospital doctor infected with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) had broken quarantine and attended an event alongside more than 1,500 people last weekend, we figured it would be safer for her to be away from the centre of a possible epidemic.

“This is Korea, not Singapore, Korea not safe, you know…” muttered my Korean husband, casting doubt on his home country.

Just hours ago, I had got an earful from my in-laws who called asking if their granddaughter went to school.

Yes, I replied matter-of-factly.

They were shocked. Don’t you know there’s a virus going around, they chided.

I do. I have been crunching the latest facts and figures for readers of The Straits Times. As of June 5, there were 41 confirmed Mers cases, four deaths, more than 600 suspected cases, over 1,600 people quarantined, 1,100 schools closed, and 7,000 tourist cancellations.

Throughout the day, I’ve been getting messages and emails from Singapore friends, asking if it is still safe to travel to Seoul.

I told them yes, because the spread of the disease has so far been contained to Gyeonggi province which surrounds the capital city.

But not anymore.

By now, there should be a witch hunt online for the identity of the Seoul doctor, who is probably being called awful names for putting so many people at risk by leaving home to attend a large-scale event at Gaepo-dong in Gangnam district, Seoul, on Sunday.

The 38-year-old doctor had treated a man who caught the virus from the index patient, a 68-year-old man from Gyeonggi province who tested positive for Mers on May 20, after a trip to the Middle East.

You would think a doctor should know better. He should be leading the fight against Mers, not contributing to the spread by coughing and sneezing his way through such a huge crowd.

First identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, Mers is an viral respiratory disease that causes symptoms like fever, cough, shortness of breath, and in extreme cases, death. It can spread by close contact or respiratory droplets. There is no treatment or vaccine, and death rate is said to be about 40 per cent. But in South Korea, the fatality date is only about 10 per cent so far.

Suddenly, it felt as if I was reliving the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) nightmare. For three months in 2003, we lived in fear and uncertainty as the virulent bug infected 238 people and killed 33 in Singapore.

But while Singapore was quick to form a Sars task force, invoking the Infectious Diseases Act, issuing infection-control guidelines and designating Tan Tock Seng Hospital as the Sars hospital, the South Korean government, by comparison, has been harshly criticised for its sluggish and inadequate response.

Unlike Singapore’s upfront and transparent approach, the Korean health ministry would not even reveal where the Mers patients are being treated, despite mounting public pressure for it to disclose the names of the hospitals to allay public panic.

Seoul mayor Park Won Soon had to call his own emergency briefing to expose the doctor’s irresponsible ways and warn people of a possible wider spread of the virus. He said he did it because the central government rejected his request to share the information.

The effectiveness of home quarantine is also being questioned, after a 44-year-old man ignored orders to stay at home and travelled to China, bringing Mers along with him into the country. A woman in her 50s was reportedly arrested for leaving home to play golf with her friends, but not before she took a bus to get to the golf course.

Not forgetting the doctor who skipped home quarantine. I hope he had at least worn a mask as precaution.

Surgical masks are now sold out online. My mother-in-law, after lecturing us for not lugging along the box of N95 masks she sent to us at the peak of the worst haze in Singapore in 2013, ordered my sister-in-law to go online and get us a new supply, but to no avail.

On the way to my daughter’s school to meet the principal, I counted no fewer than 20 mask-clad people walking around. I also heard people whispering “Mers” as if it were a taboo word.

It turned out that 26 kids did not go to school – about 20 per cent of the student population.

I initially thought their parents were being paranoid. The school had assured us that there was nothing to worry about, that they were inculcating good hygiene habits in the children and monitoring for Mers symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.

But after the mayor’s revelation, I wonder how many parents will still dare to send their children to school tomorrow.

Mine is staying at home, for sure, because this mum now thinks, it is better to be kiasu than sorry.

changmc@sph.com.sg