[Letters] H1N1 no longer ‘foreign illness’

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[Letters] H1N1 no longer ‘foreign illness’

The first time that I learned that one of my students at my university was absent because of infection with the H1N1 virus, I was a bit surprised. Of course I had heard about it on the news, but I had never actually known someone who had it until then. In the months since then, however, at least a dozen more of my students have had it. It has now ceased to surprise me and has unfortunately become quite a normal thing in my classes.

Thus I find it very odd (and a sign of backward xenophobic thinking) that, in their fear of the virus, many people in Korea erroneously believe that one should be extra suspicious of foreigners, as if we are more likely to have it than Koreans. Perhaps that was justified when the virus first appeared in Korea earlier this year, but there is no longer any reason for that kind of thinking. Anyone who rode the Seoul metro or entered a classroom today is just as likely to have H1N1 as any foreigner here.

I was especially appalled to learn today that this backward thinking can be found even at the highest level of Korean society - the president’s own house. According to the Web site of Cheong Wa Dae (the Blue House), foreigners are being temporarily banned from joining tours of the building due to fear of H1N1. So now my students can tour the Blue House, but I cannot because I might have H1N1. This makes no sense.

Of course the denial about the reality of H1N1 in Korea does not help. Korea.net, a Web site run by the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOIS), made the incredible claim in a posting dated Nov. 27 that “most of the South Korean [H1N1] patients were infected with the virus outside of the country”. I guess that means that more than half of my previously-infected students have been traveling abroad on the weekends and in between classes!

It is interesting to note that, as I recall, the very first documented case of H1N1 in Korea was a Korean national who had returned to Korea from a trip to Mexico. Schools and workplaces have been setting up monitoring procedures for anyone who enters their facilities, with many institutions temporarily closed and many festivals and other events cancelled. Hundreds of new H1N1 cases are being diagnosed in Korea every day.

The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that H1N1 is now just as much a Korean illness as it is a foreign illness. It is time for Korean society to accept that fact and stop treating foreigners differently.

Christopher Borhani, Suwon, Gyeonggi
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