Self-protectiveness or selfishness?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The latest coronavirus from China might be the next 1918 Spanish flu — the deadliest pandemic in history — with a fatality rate already at 4 percent. Psychologists believe the primal human instinct is self-preservation and survival. Quest for power or honor is at a higher level in human needs. I cannot help looking at the crowd of Chinese tourists waiting to get into a chicken soup shop across from my office building and wonder if they are heralds of doom. My head turns when I hear a sniff or a sneeze in the office. My self-protective instinct has become that acute.
Other people may react or behave differently, or to a different degree, but most are fearful of an epidemic. Getting sick or seeing others get sick — or infecting others with a disease — can all be excruciating. Fear is built into human beings to defend themselves against dangers. But all the ways of removing dangers cannot be justified. We cannot go back to the medieval days when Londoners went as far as to lock people in houses that had been host to the bubonic plague and burn down villages during the spread of the Black Death.
There have been protests of the government decision to bring Koreans home from Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the new lethal virus — via chartered planes. Authorities announced that they would isolate them for two weeks in a state facility in Cheonan in South Chungcheong. They later moved the locations to Asan, South Chungcheong, and Jincheon, North Chungcheong, after Cheonan refused to accept them. The government dares not irk Cheonan residents ahead of the April 15 general election as ruling party lawmakers represent three constituencies in Cheonan and face a by-election for Cheonan mayor. Residents in the two new locations are vehemently protesting the quarantine plan because they fear being infected by the virus.
The Koreans from Wuhan have done nothing wrong. None has so far been diagnosed with infection by the virus. They could be our relatives or children who went there for work or study. Many governments flew their citizens out of the disease-hit area, but none experienced such strong protests against their relocation. None quarantined them in groups.
Taxis and restaurants are increasingly turning away Chinese people. How can they be sure someone is Chinese? What if they speak English? Will they demand to check their passports every time? Isn’t it selfish to claim that one has the right to protect oneself from danger no matter what? Does that mean doctors and nurses can refuse patients with flu symptoms? They have a duty to their profession. Doctors must treat patients. Cab drivers must take passengers to their destinations. The driver in the film “Taxi Driver” drove his foreign customer to Gwangju in 1980 despite rumors of an uprising and blockade — and not just for the extra fare.
Amid the outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) five years ago, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon went on TV to disclose that a doctor at Samsung Medical Center came in contact with more than 1,500 people though he himself showed signs of infection. In fact, the doctor was not aware that he had been infected, and also the number of people he encountered was hugely exaggerated. The mayor apologized later after receiving strong protests from doctors.
At the time, a child of a doctor in a hospital treating MERS patients could not attend school because other parents pressured the school head to keep the child away. Our society had shown its selfish face and it is not by any means pretty.
Actor Lee Byung-hun, who played the role of Kim Jae-kyu — the Korea Central Intelligence Agency chief who assassinated strongman Park Chung Hee who ruled over Korea for 18 years — in the film “The Man Standing Next,” says, “A nation should have dignity as much as a human.” He has a point, although the character expressing it is hardly someone worthy of a noble comment. An epidemic is fearful, but we must fear showing our selfishness amidst a crisis.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 30, Page 30