Why all the masks?

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Why all the masks?

During the past two weeks, we have been witnessing another one of the crises du jour that makes life in Korea always interesting. I am referring, of course, to the so-called MERS crisis. The outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus is in deed a matter of grave concern. Overall, the Korean response has been commendable. But as is often the case, the matter has taken on a life of its own.

While no one says this not a serious public health risk, MERS is not nearly in the same league as the plague or ebola.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) recently noted, “The virus does not seem to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact which occurs when providing unprotected care to a patient.”

In other words, one is most liable to be infected while at a hospital, such as in an emergency room when the disease has not yet been diagnosed. Or, as the WHO advisory notes, “Thus far, no sustained community transmission has been documented.”

So why all the health masks on the streets of Seoul? I have never seen so many masks being worn. Furthermore, children are being kept out of schools, foreign tourists are canceling plans to visit Korea and the streets are noticeably less congested.

And for what? As of this writing (Tuesday), 87 cases have been discovered. South Korea is second in the world in the number of MERS cases, after Saudi Arabia with 1,109 and ahead of the United Arab Emirates with 76. With the sixth Korean dying of the disease, the mortality rate is a bit less than 6 percent. Or to put it another way, with a population of 49 million plus, so far the detected infection rate is 0.00018 percent with 0.0000000019 percent of the population dying of the disease.

According to the WHO, 5,869 people died in automobile accidents last year in South Korea. Since MERS has been with us roughly 13 days, roughly 3.6 percent of the year, we can extrapolate that possibly 209 people have died on South Korean roads during that period. Which means, given that five people died of MERS during the same period, one is 41 times more likely to die in an automobile accident than from MERS.

There is something going on more fundamental than public health anxiety. There are echoes of the hysteria associated with the Mad Cow Disease demonstrations seven years ago, when the real issue was not public health but the breakdown in trust between the electorate and the government.

Recently, an international journalist asked me if President Park Geun-hye might provide the leadership to navigate the nation through this crisis. My reply was that the president would first have to quickly make up for a trust deficit.

There is a fundamental breakdown of trust between the populace and the Korean government. Much of this lack of trust can be attributed to the Blue House trusting only an inner circle of confidants too narrowly. But looking one layer deeper, for a good decade, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, South Koreans have trusted what they find on the Internet more than traditional media and government institutions.

This is not simply a Park Geun-hye problem. In fact, populations that tend to trust their governments are those with fewer information sources. In other words, government-controlled, limited information is more effective in galvanizing public opinion, which in turn creates relative trust more than a society that largely gets its free-flowing information (and disinformation) from the Internet.

As one of the world’s most networked societies, South Koreans are notorious for circulating, correcting, corroborating and obfuscating information at Internet speed. But as networked individuals hunch over their smartphones, people are becoming less social and their “friends” are often anonymous individuals whom they only meet in cyberspace. All of which makes the population potentially naiive and gullible once a meme or a new idea spreads from person to person over the Internet. I daresay this development has not been lost on the North Korean cyberwarfare center.

The problem is so multidimensional and perverse that it defies remedy. But possible countermeasures may include the following:

1. Stronger leadership is needed in government, where politicians and bureaucrats take greater personal risks on behalf of the public good (The cynic in me forces me to grind my teeth, but this is a legitimate requirement).

2. To regain public trust, traditional media needs to place a higher priority on accuracy at the expense of speed in getting the latest “news” or rumor into print or on the air.

3. If not the teachers in the classrooms, then editorial writers and television commentators need to further lead by example in regular critical thinking and analysis.

4. Perhaps most importantly, bloggers and their participants should do less blank endorsing or rejection of ideas and rumors. Rather, more constructive analysis and counterpoint views need to be offered.

Considering all of this, Koreans are not truly worse than other societies in this regard, but they are at the forefront in using the Internet - and having the Internet use them. We can only hope they will eventually lead with a positive example.

*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”

by Tom Coyner

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