Make China a MERS ally

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Make China a MERS ally

The triple scourge of war, great fire and pestilence was what led to the ruin of most great cities in Europe. Battered with endless invasions and wars, Europeans built fortresses and walls to protect their cities. A citadel led to inner forts and towers. Houses in Eastern Europe were tightly knitted to leave no space between them. Home structures provided a secondary defense. But contemporary architects overlooked the fact the clustered structures were vulnerable to the spread of fire and infectious diseases.

The bubonic plague in the 14th century wiped out 30 percent of the European population. The black plague was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, transmitted through fleas living on Asian black rats. It is believed the fleas made their way to Europe via the Silk Road in cargo and on merchant ships. The outbreak coincided with the Eastern European invasion by the Mongol Empire. The shipboard rats also crossed to China and killed millions. The Chinese population in 14th century was also halved by the disease.

Korea, where 85 percent of the land is urbanized, is in disarray from a zoonotic disease believed to have been transmitted from camels. Since the unwelcome arrival of the exotic virus, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Koreans have worn masks, glued to the latest news about the outbreak, and phobic about sneezes and washing their hands. The country has become engrossed with the disease. It caused the usually rigid central bank to cut the base interest rate to a new historic low - a preemptive move to prevent the disease from crippling the economy - just a few weeks into the outbreak. The government also scurried to match it with fiscal action and is studying a supplementary budget. The president canceled a visit to the country’s closest ally, the United States. Even some companies listed on the Chinese stock market are benefiting from the MERS scare in South Korea.

Korea suffered the largest outbreak of MERS in the world after Saudi Arabia, even though it doesn’t have a single dromedary camel. The virus hopped on an airplane and wreaked havoc upon arrival, especially on the economy. The biggest setback involves China. The Chinese still have frightful memories of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a contagious and fatal coronavirus like MERS, and they have completely segregated themselves from Korea. They canceled or postponed encounters with Koreans. Tourists stopped coming. The Korean economy primarily runs on exports, and a third of them go to China. Revenue from China is nearly double the country’s entire trade surplus. The tourism and trade sectors that rely on China are now in shambles.

Kimchi was popular in China during the SARS outbreak because of the belief that garlic could boost the immune system. China was able to contain the disease after segregating infected patients in isolated places that had multiple doors. Their phobia toward the MERS outbreak in Korea is, therefore, understandable.

Experience can be the best teacher. China has become advanced in respiratory infections thanks to its hard-won battle with SARS. What has demoralized Koreans more than the disease itself is the scare factor. Koreans with their hyper-anxiety over the disease also have scared off Chinese tourists.

There could be a simpler solution. We could hire Zhong Nanshan. He was the pulmonologist who discovered the SARS virus in China. The head of a respiratory medical center in Guangdong, he kept the fatality rate low in Guangdong Province and emerged as a national hero during the SARS outbreak. He assured the people that SARS was curable and treated a critical patient for 38 hours. He has been called upon by the health authority to help the state block the transmission of MERS. If necessary, we must seek advice from China, which has gained substantial know-how in preventing and controlling infectious respiratory diseases from its experience with SARS.

Citizens now believe posts on social media more than the government because the latter stumbled and was unreliable in the early stages of the outbreak. Anxiety stems from distrust, and suspicions can be contagious. If consumption stays dead, the economy could come to a standstill. If Korea does not completely combat MERS, it may lose its most important trading partner and client. If Chinese tourists do not return to Korea, the local retail and tourism industry could be wrecked.

Korea can seek advice from Zhong Nanshan and other Chinese experts. Medical experts at China’s Fudan University claim they have developed a possible cure for MERS. Korea must contain its MERS outbreak as soon as possible in order to minimize social and economic costs. The Chinese won’t believe what Korean authorities say. But they will heed the words of a Chinese authority. We could ask Zhong to assess the MERS campaign in Korea. Chinese tourists will feel safe enough to return to Korea if they hear reassurance from a SARS expert.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Sunday, June 21, Page 19

*The author is the director of the China Economy and Finance Research Institute.

by Jeon Byeong-seo

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