MERS outbreak shows old habits die hard in South Korea

Jung Ha-Won
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South Korea is currently battling with an outbreak of the MERS, which has killed 24 people while 166 cases have been confirmed -- the largest outbreak of the disease outside Saudi Arabia

South Korea is currently battling with an outbreak of the MERS, which has killed 24 people while 166 cases have been confirmed -- the largest outbreak of the disease outside Saudi Arabia (AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je)

Seoul (AFP) - South Korea's growing MERS outbreak has laid bare the country's poor handling of disasters despite President Park Geun-Hye's pledge to overhaul public safety measures following last year's ferry disaster, experts say.

Since the first case was diagnosed on May 20, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has spread at an alarmingly rapid pace in Asia's fourth-largest economy, infecting 166 people and killing 24 of them in less than a month.

Experts blame a combination of bureaucratic inefficiency and poor crisis management and training, creating mistrust and public anxiety and shaking public confidence in the very foundations of the country's "miracle" development model.

Almost all infections occurred in hospitals and experts from the World Health Organization said they saw no evidence of transmission of the virus in communities outside hospital settings.

But this has failed to reassure the public, with online messaging services being flooded with retweeted news flashes and rumours about contaminated hospitals and people under quarantine.

The government has come under attacks for its inadequate initial response, feeding the argument that little has changed since the Sewol ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high-school students.

Park at the time vowed sweeping efforts to overhaul the country's lax safety standards, including the establishment of the new ministry of public safety and security.

But the new ministry had done little to help deal with the MERS crisis, said Park Won-Ho, professor of political science at Seoul National University.

"The government just kept creating a new state body whenever a new crisis occurred, which rather hurt the consistency of public administration," he said.

Park Ji-Young, professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, also said little had changed in the government's ability to deal with a crisis since the Sewol tragedy.

"Bureaucratic inefficiency, disregard for a crisis manual and the lack of training and education to deal with a crisis all remain the same," he told AFP.


- Lack of transparency -


The health ministry was also criticised for withholding details about the outbreak including the list of hospitals where outbreaks occurred.

Succumbing to public pressure, it belatedly disclosed the names of the hospitals on June 7, but by then the virus had infected 64 people, killing five.

Uninformed, many patients contracted the virus when they sought treatment or visited families in those hospitals in early June.

"Now I don't trust a single word the health authorities say," Kim Ji-Young, a 34-year-old housewife in Seoul, told AFP.

Kim said she wore a surgical mask wherever she went, cancelled all dinner plans with friends and stopped shopping trips except for getting essential groceries, despite the government repeatedly calling for public calm and urging people to start going out and spend money again.


- Learned nothing from Sewol -


Seoul's major Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said that Park's administration, which complained Monday that "excessive" public fear over MERS was hurting the economy, had only itself to blame.

A lack of transparency -- often cited as her government's biggest weakness and a major source of public mistrust in its handling of the Sewol disaster -- was now fuelling public anxiety over MERS, the conservative newspaper said in an editorial.

"Apparently Park has learned nothing from the Sewol accident," it said Thursday.

Apart from the government's response, a lack of awareness about the virus among the public also played a part in its rapid spread, the WHO said Tuesday.

Some of the thousands placed under home quarantine were caught by police trying to sneak out, prompting Seoul to track their mobile phones or to warn of a hefty fine.

Seoul's top-selling Chosun Ilbo newspaper said better safety awareness among the public -- one of the most-discussed topics following the Sewol accident -- was critical to curb the spread of the disease.

"No matter how good government policies are put in place, MERS will only keep growing into a dangerous monster if ordinary people don't take part and help," it said in an editorial on Thursday.