Month of MERS changes pattern of daily life

Month of MERS changes pattern of daily life
South Korea's new Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn has his temperature checked by a hospital worker as he visits the National Medical Center in Seoul on June 18, 2015

Despite the slowing number of new cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome, the public fear over the deadly disease continued to cause a significant change to life across South Korea, creating rare scenes that no one could have expected a month before.

Since the authorities confirmed the first case of a patient with the virus on May 20, the nation has fallen into a deeper state of panic with each passing day, pushing the people to change their life patterns to best prepare themselves for the worst-case scenario ― the virus being transmitted to the general community.

From school buses filled with children and teachers donning masks, to empty streets in the evenings with many grown-ups canceling dinner gatherings in order to return home as soon as possible, a growing number of South Koreans are fast adapting themselves to a new environment.

Washing hands frequently and avoiding the public areas as much as possible have become a "must" daily ritual for many, not just because of the government's repeated guideline but also because of people's voluntary sense of self-protection raised to block the virus' spread.

The most affected area of society is the nation's medical sector, with people refraining to visit if not suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

After it was announced that nearly all MERS-confirmed patients were found to have caught the virus at medical facilities, non-MERS patients who need to see doctors on a regular basis refuse to visit the medical facilities.

"My mom hasn't seen the doctor since MERS hit the country, although she really needs to go for her kidney problem. She says she won't go until the government officially announces that the virus is subsiding," said 28-year-old office worker Yoon Hee-sik. "Some have joked that there will be more deaths from avoiding doctors than by MERS."

Both small and large hospitals have seen a drop in outpatient visits, regardless of whether they were hit by MERS.

"Our number of patients fell by 20 per cent in a month. No matter how much effort we put into cleaning and sterilization measures, they just do not visit," said an oriental medical doctor in the capital who wished to remain anonymous.

Many tended to avoid wedding ceremonies, especially who raise toddlers or are pregnant, citing the virus concerns. If necessary, some show up in protective masks.

"Although I'm worried about the virus, I couldn't miss my sister's wedding this weekend. So I wore a mask throughout the whole ceremony," said Jeong Eun-young, who is seven months pregnant.

Other business sectors have also suffered from the aftermath of MERS.

According to a survey conducted on some 650 restaurants by the Korea Food Service Industry Management Institute, average sales in early June plummeted by nearly 40 per cent compared to before the MERS crisis.

"Group reservations sharply dropped. The main source of my business is group dinners but many regular customers have cancelled," said a 29-year-old surnamed Song, who owns a restaurant in Gangnam, Seoul.

As people tend to call off group dinner plans, the number of drunk driving accidents has also dropped.

According to data by the National Police Agency, the number of drunk driving accidents fell to about 600 cases in the first half of this month, down 41 per cent than the same period last year.

The police have suspended drunk driving crackdowns near MERS-hit hospitals as part of its efforts to support virus-containment work.

"Even without crackdowns conducted in June, the drunk driving accident rate dropped, which indicates that the public concerns over MERS is serious," said Rep. You Dae-woon of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

On the other hand, the food delivery business has seen a sharp rise in sales.

According to the food delivery application Baedal Minjok, the number of app users surged by 23 per cent on June 13-14 compared to two weeks ago.

The tourism industry, which was firstly hit by MERS, still faces difficulties.

Jejudo Island was most recently hit, after the 141st MERS patient was found to have toured the island despite having some symptoms.

While the quarantine authorities immediately isolated those who closely contacted the patient, and took preventive measures, public concerns remained.

The number of Jejudo tourists on June 19-20 declined by 13 per cent compared to last year, according to the Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Tourism Association.

The flight booking rate between Seoul and Jejudo halved while the accommodation reservation rate plummeted by 40 to 50 per cent, it added.

The overall tourism industry, however, is seeing a gradual recovery. The growth in travel cancellations to Seoul is reportedly slowing as the virus outbreak subsides.

According to the state-run Korea Tourism Organisation, about 1,800 foreign travelers called off their trips to South Korea on Friday, only up 1.43 per cent from that of the previous day.

The figure is lower than the number of cancellations Wednesday, which exceeded 3,700, rising by 3.15 per cent from the day before.

From June 1-18, a total of 123,390 foreign travelers cancelled their trips, with the majority from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

While the KTO said that the foreign tourists who booked flights in July and August seem to be cautiously watching the situation in Korea, it projected that the number of tourists could tumble by up to 30 per cent this month.


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