As MERS spreads, so do wild rumors

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As MERS spreads, so do wild rumors

We are flooded by rumors and urban legends. We all laugh off the conspiracy theory that the spread of MERS is an attempt to cover up the story about the live anthrax shipped to a U.S. Forces base. There are tales of patients secretly being treated in some hospitals, hospital intensive care units closing down and elementary school children being diagnosed. They accompany claims like “official letter from the school” or “internal tip from hospital staff.”

The government’s response is just as unreliable as the rumors. The government made threats that spreading false stories will be strictly punished. But they are dealing with the issue incorrectly. It makes more sense to investigate why these groundless rumors are spreading. If people “don’t trust the government,” the government needs to find out why.

Let’s take a look at a public health guideline on the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. It was created for cases of new epidemic outbreaks, such as SARS or new strains of influenza and has a section devoted to “communication.” It is a checklist to secure the public’s trust and transparency when controlling a disease.

First of all, is uncertainty being acknowledged? After the first patient was diagnosed on May 20, the health authorities stressed that the respiratory disease has a high fatality rate but was not highly contagious. Keeping two meters away from a patient would not transmit the disease, they said.

However, another person in another room in the same hospital contracted MERS. And the claim that a tertiary infection is not likely turned out to be a lie. The authorities did not prepare for the worst possible development.

Secondly, was information provided as soon as possible? This is what people feel most upset about. The authorities did not release the names of the hospitals where MERS patients were treated or hospitalized even when the ruling party floor leader made a demand.

According to one survey, 82.6 percent of respondents want disclosure.

Thirdly, were patience and flexibility recommended? The message is to trust the authorities and wait for measures. But it lacks validity as many people are reminded of how the government handled the Sewol ferry tragedy. After following an order to “stay put” led to tragic deaths, people increasingly think they are responsible for their own health and safety.

Fourthly, did the government acknowledge mistakes and try to improve? On June 1, the president said, “initial responses are important for new epidemics like MERS, but the initial responses were poor.” Was she apologizing or clarifying? Or was she rebuking the government?

Fifthly, were realistic preventive measures recommended? While washing hands is being stressed, the Ministry of Health and Welfare posted absurd prevention guidelines such as, “Avoid close contact with camels” and “Do not drink unpasteurized camel milk or raw camel meat.”

People criticized these ridiculously nominal gestures harshly. While the latter point does not apply to Korea yet, the authorities must not be seen to be giving up on society. The only consolation we have so far is that there are not so many patients to consider yet.

The author is a reporter at the JoongAng Sunday. JoongAng Ilbo, June 4, Page 30


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