Time for people power

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Time for people power

As Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) spreads in Korea, more than 1,000 people suspected to have caught the fatal illness are in isolation wards of hospitals or quarantined in their homes. The public scare has forced over 180 schools in Gyeonggi province to temporarily shut down. Most of the panic can be traced back to the government’s lax first reaction and inept follow-up. But it is too tense a situation to concentrate on blaming people. The power to overcome the crisis must come from the people. It is time for them to take such an emergency with composure rather than jumping on the public outrage bandwagon and spreading wild rumors.

Those who are suspected to be infected with MERS must report their symptoms to health authorities immediately and follow their instructions. However, some people who were directed to get medical examinations at government-designated hospitals or were ordered to be isolated simply ignored the instructions. In fact, it all started with the first MERS patient, who concealed his travel records, including a visit to Saudi Arabia, and went to one hospital after another. A Korean woman in Hong Kong chose not to follow local public health authorities’ direction to quarantine herself and another Korean man reentered the island despite public health authorities’ worry about his being infected. Korean travelers’ shameful reactions triggered international doubts about the trustworthiness of Koreans.

Patients with various types of infectious diseases must fulfill their obligations wherever they are. If Koreans who are suspected of carrying the MERS virus do not respect health authorities’ instructions, they should pay a fine. A partial restriction on human rights of those suspected of carrying a serious illness is a worldwide norm.

People must be extra careful about their personal hygiene by washing their hands often and wearing masks. They must maintain a high sense of public etiquette by putting a hand over their mouth when coughing in public places. They must refrain from propagating wild rumors in cyberspace because that only makes people more scared. Korea may not be familiar with the way to react to infectious diseases as the country was spared from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Ebola outbreaks. Yet the country is not a safe zone from the threat of infections. As responsible citizens, we must learn how to deal with infectious diseases and leave behind a precedent in which Korea overcame a crisis again with the power of its people.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 4, Page 30

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