It’s been over a week and a half since people have been in a panic over MERS.  Last week I wrote about how my school has been handling it.  Here’s an update on things I’ve observed, read, and experienced.

The media hype about this is bigger than it feels, to me.  That might be because even though I’m here in Seoul, I mingle with a mix of Koreans and expats.  The expats generally think Koreans are panicking way too much.  As far as I’m concerned, if I take some pretty normal precautions, I should be fine.  But most Koreans I talk to seem to be more worried about it, to the point where they’re only leaving the house when absolutely necessary.

I don’t blame Koreans for being so worried.  From a PR perspective, the whole thing is a mess.  First, any health scare will always get a certain amount of people in a tizzy.  Next, consider the general lack of trust in the government due to the Sewol Ferry accident last year.  It’s natural to expect skepticism.  Then, after being asked repeatedly, the government took over 2 weeks to release a list of hospitals where MERS cases showed up.  And when they finally did release the list, it was wrong.

Then consider how medical treatment works here.  Generally in the US, when you’re sick you see your primary care doctor.  Your treatment is mainly through this one person unless a) they refer you to a specialist or the ER, or b) for whatever reason you feel you need a second opinion and go see someone else.  In almost all cases you’re going to a doctor’s office which is usually a pretty small place.  Most of the time when I go to the doctor in the US there are fewer than 20 people in the office.

In South Korea though, when you aren’t feeling well you go to the hospital.  You sit in the hospital’s waiting room and then you go see a doctor.  When I wanted to get a refill of my migraine medication here, I was at the hospital for about 3 hours and must have passed a couple hundred people in that time.  And next time I need more migraine medicine?  I can go to ANY hospital.  While it can be convenient for me, the patient, it’s scattered and lacks consistency from a treatment perspective.  This hospital doesn’t have my medical history, including where else I’ve been.  It also exposes me to a lot of other sick people, which can be devastating when you have something like MERS going around.

So, the fears and lack of trust among the general population make complete sense to me.

That said, I read Western media and also grew up with doctors for parents, so I’m not on board with all the worrying.  Should there be some cause for concern?  Absolutely.  If you’re stupid and don’t take any precautions you could get sick.  But should I put myself in voluntary quarantine when I feel fine?  I think that’s going too far.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  • I’m living my life as usual.
  • I’m being extra diligent about washing my hands regularly.  This includes bringing my own soap to work since they removed bar soap from the bathrooms and only have liquid soap, and theirs is basically lemon-scented water.
  • I bought a face mask, which I wore once because it felt disgusting always having hot air on my face.
  • I’m not sharing food with anyone.
    • Normally I don’t, but a lot of Korean cuisine involves sharing a large pot of stew, barbecue, and side dishes.  I’m just not going out for those meals.
  • I’m not going to the gym.  But that’s mainly because I’m lazy.

Since I teach at an elementary school, here are more things I’m doing:

  • Any kid who feels sick, at all, gets sent straight to the nurse.
    • While this is standard practice in the US, it doesn’t seem to be normal here. (Your education is too important to miss class!) What tends to happen is the teacher has a long conversation with the kid about how s/he feels, and then maybe after that they go to the bathroom and come back.
  • I spray disinfectant on desks and doorknobs daily.
  • I don’t touch kids.

I should also note that MERS has mostly spread in hospitals and among families of people sick with it.  The ones who’ve died were generally old and already had a severe illness, so their immune systems were weak.  I haven’t been to a hospital since the outbreak, I live alone, and I’m pretty healthy.

That said, I did feel sick last week.  The left side of my throat was swollen.  Normally I’d go to the doctor to get it checked out, but I decided against it.  Since most of the MERS cases spread in hospitals, I figured I’d wait it out rather than expose myself to who knows what.  It passed in two days and I feel fine, for now.