Thursday, June 4, 2015

Feeding the MERS Panic

As MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) continues to spread in Korea, over a thousand people are now under quarantine as it has been confirmed that a third person has died after having contracted the virus.

As a precaution, hundreds of schools have been closed, too.

Also, about a hundred airmen from Osan Air Base have been placed under quarantine at a military hospital when an NCO tested positive for MERS. This is the one to watch out for. Considering how people are packed together in the military, a virus like MERS could be even deadlier than the North Koreans could be.

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Personally, despite all that, I think that the fear of this virus has spread faster than the virus itself and that it is important that people should have some perspective. After all, this is not the first time an unusually strong strain of the flu virus spread in Korea. Also, statistically speaking, people ought to be much more worried about cancer and hypertension than about influenza or SARS or MERS or Ebola.

That being said, however, the public's concern is not entirely hard to understand. After all, wanting to be safe is certainly an understandable response.

Therefore, considering the fact that most of the people who have been quarantined are those who had been unlucky enough to have been in close proximity to the initial patients, especially those who had been in the same hospitals, the government could have publicized the names of those hospitals where the patients were quarantined so that the rest of the public could take precautions and avoid those places.

However, the government chose to keep those names a secret. The government reasoned that publicizing those names would create panic. The government's reasoning is not without merit. If the rest of the public chooses to avoid those hospitals like the plague (pun intended), those hospitals could lose badly needed revenues.

The fact remains, however, that there is something grossly perverse about the government refusing to share information with the public that could be in the public's best interest.

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I think that this is as good a time as any for the government and the country's hospitals to discuss a new insurance policy that hospitals can choose to purchase should epidemics like this occur again in the future. However, that is a discussion for another day. For now, this fire has to be put out first. 

Whether the government's action is justifiable or not, however, for every cause there is an effect. In response to the government's refusal to release the names of those hospitals, members of the public have taken matters into their own hands.

The public's response ranges from the benign, such as recommending that people apply Vaseline inside their noses and buying up tens of thousands of masks (that might or might not work), to the dangerous, such as using social media to create and disseminate their own list of hospitals that they suspect are under quarantine. For all intents and purposes, this list does not seem to be entirely accurate.

When people are afraid, they will seek safety wherever they can find it. And for understandable reasons, the public does not feel safe when the government is keeping tight lipped about this. Therefore, it is only natural that some members of the public have begun to panic. Again, it is not entirely rational, but when was the last time the masses were ever rational in the face of a contagious and potentially deadly disease?

The government could have taken control and ended this panic. If it had decided to publish the names of those hospitals, it would have been able to provide authoritative information that could have put all those false rumors and silly homeopathic medical advice to rest.

On top of that, if it is ever revealed that any of those people under quarantine or patients suffering from MERS contracted the disease because of the government's failure to publicize this information, the government is going to find itself being sued by a lot of angry people.

The government could still act now and allay the people's fear. Instead, the government chose to arrest two people for spreading false rumors about MERS.

Until this virus runs its course, members of the public are going to do whatever they can to feel safe. Unless the government chooses to change tact, any panic that might (or might not) result will be the government's fault.

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