MERS exposes a lack of citizenship

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MERS exposes a lack of citizenship

The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus has hit Korea in many ways for over the last month. The streets of Myeongdong used to be filled with Chinese tourists even on cold winter days, but now there are more merchants than pedestrians. If the MERS crisis lingers until the end of July, the business losses in the service, tourism and other industries is expected to be 10 trillion won ($8.94 billion). If it still continues another month, the loss will grow to 20 trillion won by the end of August. The government is considering a supplementary budget of 15 trillion won or more.

While several emergency measures were taken in response to the unexpected crisis, more and more people are suffering directly and indirectly. Naturally, people are venting their anger at the causes of this catastrophe and using social media to investigate the causes of the failure to control MERS and share their findings.

The authorities who failed to respond quickly have become public enemies. Samsung Medical Center, whose emergency room was visited by both “patient zero” and a “super spreader,” has also become a target. The head of the hospital and the owner of the group apologized to the nation.

Overcrowding in emergency rooms, multi-bed hospital rooms, shaky public medical services and patient care by family members, which are the result of a medical system with low medical fees and high inefficiency, have been highlighted as systemic problems. The MERS outbreak exposed the inabilities of disease prevention authorities and our medical system, and reform measures are being proposed.

But it is questionable if society has the capacity to respond to future outbreaks of new epidemics even with new systems.

For any given problem, the cause and solution reflect the overall level of the community. When Korea was faced with the MERS outbreak, the lack of civic spirit and social awareness added to the systemic flaws and were unbecoming of a highly educated country with the 11th-largest economy in the world.

Even now, the medical staff caring for infected patients despite the risk to themselves and their families are being treated like virus spreaders. There are no medical reasons to shun them.

In this social atmosphere, we cannot expect patients and their families to display civilized social awareness. In fact, the spread of the virus was largely caused by the failure of patients and their families to provide proper information to medical staff. For example, patient zero did not say that he had visited Saudi Arabia, and the super-spreader who infected 80 other people hid the fact that he had been treated at Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital. The patient who spread the virus at Konkuk University Medical Center and the patient who caused the Kangdong Sacred Heart Hospital to suspend outpatient care did not tell medical staff the truth. As a result, many other people were infected or quarantined, and major hospitals had to shut down their outpatient care. Of course we cannot rule out the possibility that they might not have been able to get timely treatment or been sent to other hospitals even if they had told the truth. But still, they transferred the risk to the community in order to avoid personal inconvenience.

Some people in quarantine left the designated location for overseas business travel, golf trips, lectures and public transit use, and as many as 25 new cases a day have been reported in part due to them.

Our entire society is maximizing selfishness. In fact, it is not rare to meet patients and families who hid their visits to hospitals where the MERS virus was found, or people who ignored hospital rules and went to emergency rooms even though they had symptoms that should have required screening first. Many of those incidents have not been published in the media.

So the “MERS-free” hospitals have to double or triple their measures to check patients for MERS symptoms through questionnaires and signed statements. Distrust prevails, when medical services should be based on trust between patients and doctors.

Who spread the virus of distrust and selfishness in Korean society? The leaders and elites are most responsible. For instance, confirmation hearings for high-level public servants show how easily and casually they lie to the people. As the so-called leaders pursue their personal interests, the society was hit by MERS, and the disease prevention authorities, hospitals, patients and their families just covered up the truth without guilt.

As we’ve seen with the SARS, H1N1 influenza and MERS outbreaks, a new epidemic will probably threaten Korea soon. Even with improved medical systems, we won’t be able to prevent the disease from spreading. We must build a society with a solid sense of community and responsible citizenship. And social leaders need to take the lead.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 1, Page 29

*The author is a pediatrician at the National Medical Center.

by Hwang Se-hee

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