We must not let fear prevailMiddle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) has claimed four lives in Korea, but already authorities are waging a battle against another invisible, yet dangerous outbreak - the rumors and theories sprawled across online platforms that have fed panic and fear nationwide. More than 1,100 kindergartens and schools have been temporarily shut down. Cinemas and department stores are empty.
The government deserves the criticism for its incompetence and silence. But we cannot let ourselves be won over by fear. Experts say the danger of MERS has been overstated to some extent. The fatality rate was 40 percent in Saudi Arabia, where cases were last reported. But it can’t generalize the real danger. A German research team believes the disease’s mortality rate is about 10 percent.
Although it has no definite cure or vaccine, the symptoms are similar to the common cold and pneumonia and therefore are capable of being treated. In its advisory on its website, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that although additional cases could be reported in Korea, “historically, consistent application of adequate infection, prevention and public health measures” has stopped the transmission of the disease. Hyper-anxiety does not help in any emergency.
A man who once believed he had been locked in a freezer wrote his last words on the floor. He was found dead the next day, seemingly having frozen to death, yet the refrigeration unit was inoperative and the temperature inside had been normal. He had killed himself panicking. This “nocebo” effect, or negative mental thinking, has been clinically proven to harm physical health and shorten lives.
Aside from the outbreak, MERS cases in Korea pose a different danger to the country because they have deepened public distrust in authorities. If fear cripples our society, no means are effective. Society is already paying the price as retail and tourism businesses take a direct hit. Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director for health security, believes school closures are unnecessary at the current stage.
At the moment, people distrust the government more than the virus itself. Health authorities must be transparent with all necessary information to help the public discern what is true and what is not to restore confidence. At the same time, the government must work hard to prevent groundless rumors from spreading overseas. It must fully cooperate and be honest with neighboring countries so that they do not become doubtful of Korea’s ability to contain the infection.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 6, Page 26