Bet­ter safe than sorry when it comes to SK MERS out­break


Barely a month af­ter mov­ing to Seoul, my hus­band and I are won­der­ing if we should send our 5-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 per­cent. But in South Korea, the fa­tal­ity date is only about 10 per­cent so far.

‘As if re­liv­ing the SARS night­mare’



felt as


I was

re­liv­ing the Se­vere Acute Re­s­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome 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 crit­i­cized 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 trav­eled 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 per­cent 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.


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