It has been a long time since South Korea has been mentioned in international news. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has been the hottest topic of the last two weeks. While the virus spread, rumors and fear spread faster, until the fear emptied schools, parks and streets. But, was this all necessary? A quick look at the facts show that although MERS has no known cure, it can still be treated and the symptoms are only flu-like, unless one is already suffering from a severe disease, in which case MERS can bring complications and catalyze the other illness which could lead to death. So far, the only people who have died from the disease, had extreme health complications and were already fighting another lethal illness. So although simple good hygiene such as washing hands and not inhaling infected saliva (which should be common), could prevent getting the illness, why was Korea so crippled with fear?
Public Distrust In Government
The long history of lies, scandal and misinformation has eroded the public opinion on the government. Last year’s Sewol Ferry disaster was a huge knock on people’s trust and faith in president Park Geun Hye. Because of this cynical attitude, the public mock and ignore government’s statements to remain calm, and put their trust in other questionable sources, because they feel like there is no one else to turn to. The government’s inability to quarantine infected patients effectively, will surely be another disappointment in the eyes of the public.
Fear of the Foreign
Korea is known for having a homogeneous and insular society, although this has been changing in recent years, the fear of the ‘other’ is prevalent in most countries. Rather than being a racism issue, it is more a fear of the unknown as Korean society is not accustomed to the MERS virus.When news first broke that the MERS virus may have originated from camels in the Middle East, people naturally began to panic because it is something that they are completely inexperienced in. Camel owners on the other hand, are not worried.
The internet is now so embedded in Korean society that everyone is engaged to some sort of online conversation, be it a private group chat like Kakao Talk, or publicly in the comment section of articles or forums. A small statement can easily and quickly gain popularity, and people naturally gravitate to the most shocking or negative. The majority of netizens tend to hear what they want to hear, and selectively replicate that into fact so that the fear spreads.
Technology also means that rumors can be spread much faster. Before the government cracked under immense pressure, and finally released the names of the hospitals which were treating MERS patients, an app was launched called ‘메르스 지도’ (‘MERS Map’) by an anonymous netizen. On the app, people could see the hospitals which were rumored to have MERS patients so that people could avoid them to prevent infection.
Comparing With Others
In Korea, people trust the public opinion and choose to fit in with the rest of society. It is very natural to compare yourself to others in order to evaluate yourself, and most likely adapt to suit the trend. So even if you feel healthy and are not scared of contracting MERS, if you see other people wearing masks, you start to feel like they have a good reason to, and so should you. Unfortunately this can be also taken to the extreme, where people experience backlash for not thinking in the same way as everyone else. Some doctors have commented that MERS is not that dangerous, but netizens have accused them for being idiotic and unprofessional.
The MERS epidemic has yet to show signs of slowing down. My heart goes out to all the patients, the families of the patients, and those who have had to put their life on hold for the past few days. I respect all the hard working doctors and nurses, and I hope that the dust settles soon.
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