With the number of South Koreans diagnosed with the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) rising by the day and a seventh death in that country linked to this coronavirus, it is clear that the disease, said to have arrived in humans through bats and camels, has spread to East Asia from its primary grounds in the Arabian Peninsula. The so-called index, or first, patient in East Asia was hospitalised in Pyeongtaek, 60km south of the South Korean capital, last month after he returned from a trip to Bahrain. Since then, the virus has spread to the emergency room of Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul, one of the largest hospitals in South Korea, and beyond. China has at least one case. Seoul, which initially reacted with confusion and a lack of transparency, showed a welcome change of strategy on Sunday by publishing the list of 24 exposed hospitals.
Singapore has done well to take precautionary steps without overreacting. It has asked schools to cancel trips to South Korea and ensured that Singaporean students and teachers visiting the country have returned home. They have also been told to keep a weather eye over the next fortnight for Mers symptoms, which include fever, coughing and breathlessness.
Last night, the Republic started temperature screening of passengers arriving from South Korea. With seven direct flights daily between Seoul and Singapore - more on some days - there is plenty of ways for the virus to travel - whether on a suitcase handle, on the door knob of an airplane's toilet door, or in its air-conditioning system.
As always, the health authorities have to strike a balance between good sense and the imperative to prevent panic in society. Twelve years ago, Sars, a cousin of the Mers coronavirus, afflicted 238 people in Singapore and took 33 lives. While Sars was declared a pandemic, it is comforting to note that the World Health Organisation has, as yet, not declared Mers as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. That, plus the confidence of lessons learnt from Sars, offers reassurance that Singapore is in a good position to handle a potential outbreak here. Besides, Mers does not spread as easily as Sars.
That said, there is little room for complacency. The mortality rate of Mers patients shows that more than a third who contract it tend to perish, which is more than twice that of Sars patients. The root word of responsibility is response. From the regular and proper washing of hands, to the prompt reporting to the authorities of suspicious symptoms, there is much that the public could do to help stave off this threat. Vigilance is key. The Bedouin tribes of Arabia taught their young to trust in God, but to also not forget to tie their camels. Personal responsibility is crucial.