As I arrive at Seoul Incheon International Airport, they’re still talking about Ebola over the intercom. That has to be a good sign if the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) hasn’t overtaken Korea’s largest airport, right?
But in South Korea — where a recent outbreak of MERS has left 126 people sick and 11 dead — people like Seoul resident Erin Chang are understandably concerned. “I think each person has a different level of being scared,” the business development manager told me. “I’m trying to be cautious of MERS and the MERS scare at the same time.”
My parents almost cancelled their 30th wedding anniversary trip this week from Guam to South Korea. I messaged my parents: “It is good to be careful, but not scared.”
“OK,” my dad replied. “But PLEASE wear a mask!”
Before I left my New York on Sunday to fly to Seoul, I did my research. In some airborne cases, a face cover-up could help — at least make you feel more in control. I dig deeper into facts from the World Heath Organization: “The virus does not seem to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact, such as occurs when providing unprotected care to a patient.”
I tried not to let the 35 percent fatality rate scare me — a statistic my mother latched onto.
The author and her parents take masked selfies on a plane. (Photo: Ko Im)
For good measure, I called my best friend, a nurse. She agreed that the probability of anyone contracting the coronavirus is small.
On the flight, I donned a mask and read a newspaper article that listed hotbed hospitals handling cases.
So when I arrive in Seoul, I am surprised: Korea’s immigration agents are wearing masks, but that’s about it. Most travelers seem at ease. I realize I probably have more to worry about with the germs from the fingerprint machine at customs.
When I go to the domestic airport, however, a larger percentage of people are covered up. But keep in mind that masks are commonplace in a well being-obsessed country that resides in a region that remembers the deadly SARS outbreak. For me, this look of a surgeon is a first. I’m only wearing a mask to alleviate any familial worry.
International business consultant MeeHyoe Koo only started wearing a mask this week, as well: “It seems like it’s been quite chaotic in the past few days, with negative sentiment rising,” he explains. “I hope the situation gets better soon.”
As one province governor told the media: “We are fighting two wars; The war against the disease and the war against fear.”
My family and I fly away from the city to Jeju Island and continue to turn on the television, where MERS tops the news again and again. Despite a sharp drop in cases, Hong Kong has issued a red travel alert to South Korea. Lots of schools remain closed. Aggressive precautionary measures send the message: better safe than sorry.
English teacher Sonya Green and her boyfriend were at Mokdong Hospital last week on another medical matter. Her boyfriend went back more recently for a checkup, but she’s only a little worried. After all, her school still warrants her presence in the classroom.
The invisible virus is treatment resistant and unable to cure. What’s clear is more research needs to be done. As in life, unfortunately, negative flares open our eyes to prompt a more long-term response.
The author poses with her family on Jeju Island, sans masks. (Photo: Ko Im)
As for me and my parents, we leave our masks in the hotel room as we venture out in the open. We’re grateful for the clean air and sense of calm that we breathe.
Chang adds that some of her medical school friends wish they could test positive so they could catch a break from their strenuous schedules. Meantime, a joke wedding photo with everyone masked in cocktail attire circles the internet, which also advises me not to drink camel urine, especially in Saudi Arabia. Duly noted.
I’m just glad my family and I were communicative and proactive in our reaction, and we have some memories to share, masks and all.