[Viewpoint] A test of the quarantine system

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[Viewpoint] A test of the quarantine system

The other day I got an e-mail from an acquaintance. He wrote: “I am deeply dissatisfied with our quarantine authorities ... While other countries respond to H1N1 flu quickly and strongly, our administration’s measures and weak and vague.” He continued, “In order to prevent this type of flu from spreading in the future, the press must point out harshly the administration’s problems.” His words sounded true. I thought to myself that our quarantine authorities hardly used such strong and powerful expressions to prevent the flu, and many would agree with the sender.

Fear stems from ignorance. A beast that reveals only its glowing eyes in darkness feels more fearful than a beast that growls with its entire body exposed. It is natural that the world is horrified by the new flu whose genetic characteristics, transmission routes and effects are not completely known yet. Interestingly enough, different countries respond to the fear in different ways.

China was very careful. All the visitors and staff staying at a hotel occupied by a man infected with the flu were quarantined for a week. The country enhanced quarantine inspections on Mexicans. The president of Mexico appeared on TV and complained that some countries and regions were taking discriminatory measures due to ignorance and wrong information. Hong Kong set up a 17-story special ward, and people suspected to have the flu were hospitalized there by force.

Japan was even worse. As soon as the new flu was reported, the authorities inspected all the people entering the country from Mexico, the United States and Canada. The head of the education authorities announced that if an infection is confirmed inside the country, he would order all schools to close. The country said not only the person who is suspected to have the flu but also people who sat in vicinity of the patient would be quarantined for about 10 days in a hotel near the airport.

Meanwhile, the United States did not take any strong measures such as closing the border to Mexico or grounding flights, even though more than 1,000 people have been confirmed to have the flu. The U.S. government judged that such measures are costly and ineffective, and excessive measures might infringe on human rights. The flu has spread into nearly all American states but it is up to local governments to decide to close schools. European countries are also taking mild measures compared to Asian countries.

Korea’s response to the flu is closer to that of the U.S. and Europe than China or Japan. The treatment of the first patient, a nun, confirmed this. The authorities advised her to stay inside her home and did not isolate her. The administration did not close schools. It responded to the flu step-by-step, in accordance with the moves of the World Health Organization. That may have seemed lax to people like the sender of the e-mail.

Which should be weighed, control or maintenance? The quarantine system of each country varies depending on its priorities. Countries that want to control the disease over all else seek to contain infection as early as possible, while other countries prioritize actual effects of measures and human rights.

In general, Asian countries choose a control model, while advanced countries in the Western world take a maintenance method emphasizing human rights.

During the Japanese colonial occupation, we experienced strong quarantine measures. When an epidemic broke out, the village where the patient lived was isolated entirely. When there was an outbreak of Hansen’s disease, the Japanese arrested all patients, without checking whether they were infectious or not, and isolated them on Sorok Island.

They violated human rights, forcing the patients into labor and sterilizing them. Judiciary went above medical care.

As with the poles of industrialization and democratization, and environment and development, it is difficult to both contain an epidemic and protect human rights at the same time. Finding a balance between the two, depending on a situation, is an advanced way to prevent an epidemic. Isolation is not always effective. We don’t need to use a hammer to kill a fly.

But we must not merely sit idle when an epidemic spreads like wildfire in the name of protecting human rights, either. Although it is difficult, the two factors must be taken into consideration in a quarantine system.

The new flu put our new quarantine system to a test. This system was formed after the outbreak of SARS. It is not that the government’s measures were flawless. The government changed the official name of the influenza several times and the authorities mistook a simple flu patient for the new flu patient. Nevertheless, it responded in a more calm and organized way, than when SARS, bird flu or foot-and-mouth disease broke out. Although it is too early to make an evaluation, our quarantine system looks promising, to say the least.

*The writer is a social affairs news editor of the Joong-Ang Ilbo.

by Lee Gyu-yeon
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