52 Weeks of Adventure # 23: MERS Scares AKA The Adventure of Korean Healthcare

If you’re up on world news then you probably know that there has been an outbreak of MERS here in South Korea. While the first case arrived in Korea mid-May, it was only this past week that it became common knowledge. So, it’s been a fun week here.

Photo credit: http://depletedcranium.com/  This is for illustration only. I actually think this is a Japanese family. But this is a pretty common sight here in Korea, even when there is no MERS.

Photo credit: http://depletedcranium.com (This is for illustration only. I actually think this is a Japanese family. But this is a pretty common sight here in Korea, even when there is no MERS.)

If you don’t know, MERS stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. As the name suggests, it’s a virus that originated in the Middle East (and is found there almost exclusively) that causes respiratory problems. As the American media dramatically announced, “It has no cure and no vaccine!”

While this is true, it’s also not quite the death sentence it sounds like. Like the flu, MERS is the sort of virus that the majority of immune systems can fight off and recover from. In fact, all of the MERS deaths in Korea so far (and most worldwide) have been people who already had a weakened immune system from other serious conditions, usually lung conditions (Tuberculosis is very common here). That’s not to say it’s no big deal or that precautions shouldn’t be taken, but it’s definitely not the bubonic plague the media is making it out to be.

This situation has led Koreans to react in ways that are just, well, so Korean. In other words, they are massively over-reacting in some ways, while not reacting enough in some ways that would actually be helpful. For example:

  • More than 500 schools in the Seoul area were closed to stop the spread of the virus, despite the fact that ALL current cases were contracted by people in the hospital, working in the hospital, or visiting the hospital that held the already diagnosed patients and despite the fact that best research indicates that this virus is not easily transmitted and only appears in people who have had prolonged contact with a MERS patient.
  • Knowing that 100% of the confirmed cases came from people who had been in the same hospital with other patients, the government refused to release the name of the hospital because they were afraid it would incite panic. I’m sorry, but that has to be one of the least logical things I’ve ever heard. If you know where the virus is, tell people not to go there. It’s pretty simple.
  • My school decided to take extra precautions by putting fresh bars of communal soap in our bathrooms. Because it’s impossible for soap to have germs, right? In good news, this is the first new soap we’ve gotten in a year. In bad news, we still have no toilet paper.

    I don't know about you, but this seems super hygenic to me.

    I don’t know about you, but this seems super hygenic to me.

  • My husband’s school has decided that they are now going to start checking the temperature of every person as they enter the school in the morning. Be advised that the closest MERS case to us is in an entirely different province and, once again, the ONLY people who have caught it are people who contracted it from the hospital.
  • I received an emergency alert on my phone (that would have been sent to all the cell phones in the country) instructing me to wash my hands, cough into my elbow, and not let other people cough on me. Duh Doy. However, this may have been news to some. For the two years I’ve lived here, I have constantly been surprised that people who wear face masks frequently (ostensibly to protect themselves or others from germs and environmental pollutants) have little understanding of how germs work. For example:
    • Old people (many of whom have tuberculosis) will wet cough all over you on the bus or subway or street with no apologies.
    • It is common practice for people, from grandfathers to dainty high school girls, to hock massive loogies into the street at your feet constantly. I have also seen some elderly people blow their noses onto the street by plugging one nostril and shooting snot out.
    • People eat and drink after each other constantly, even when someone is sick and wearing a mask. I will frequently see students take off their mask to drink out of their friend’s water bottle. IF YOU ARE SICK ENOUGH TO WEAR A MASK, DO NOT SHARE DRINKS WITH YOUR FRIENDS!
    • Again, there is this seemingly high sensitivity to germs and to social responsibility, given all the mask wearing, yet people never take the precaution of staying home or keeping their children home from school to prevent spreading illnesses. Your kid has pink eye? It’s fine. Just send them to school with an eye patch!

The media keeps saying that South Korea is in a pretty good position to contain and handle MERS since they are so medically advanced. This is certainly true in some ways and they are far more advanced than many other Asian countries. However, having all the fancy equipment doesn’t necessarily mean medical practices are what you might think of as “medically advanced.”

  • Many Koreans still believe in fan death – the belief that if you sleep in a room with a fan on, you will die from breathing the recirculated air. In fact, there must always be fresh air. So even in the winter when it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, we must open all the windows. We may also run the heater while the windows are open, but the windows must stay open.
  • Most Koreans believe that eating and drinking too many cold foods will make you sick. Even Korean doctors will tell you this. If you are sick, you must avoid cold foods. I assume this comes from the general idea that you want to keep your body temperature from dropping too low, but I can assure you that it is OK for me to drink cold water when I have runny nose. Really, it is.
  • Korean healthcare is excellent in that it is quick and very cheap. Because it is cheap, doctors often like to run tons of unnecessary tests and prescribe lots of unnecessary medication. I once went to the doctor for what I knew was a lingering sinus infection. I told the doctor it was a sinus infection. He did not examine me in any way, but ordered a chest x-ray and prescribed me 5 different medications without even asking if I was allergic to anything (which I am) or taking any other medications. I’m pretty sure one of the meds was just Tylenol, but still. The upside was that the visit cost about $5 USD and the medicine was another $4.
  • Along with that, in America, people tend to want to know more about their health. Patients often do their own research (for better or worse) and ask their doctor about specific medications and things of that nature. It seems that Koreans tend to blindly trust the doctor and take whatever the doctor prescribes for them to take.
  • Many Koreans go to the doctor for EVERYTHING. And the doctor prescribes medication for EVERYTHING. Granted, it’s probably Advil half the time, but still. I once told my Coteacher that my arm was sore because I’d had to stand on the bus the previous day and the bus driver was driving crazily and I had to hold on for dear life. She looked at me with wide eyes and said, “You should go to the doctor!”

Ultimately, I don’t think we have too much to worry about as far as MERS is concerned, but it certainly has made for an interesting week and has given me the change to reflect on the greater adventure that is living abroad in a country that has very different ideas about health and healthcare than what I’m accustomed to.

*Please note that this post uses a lot of generalities based on my experiences. I’m fully aware that my two years of experience here does not make me an expert nor does it mean that every Korean person feels and behaves this way.

If you have an adventure to share, add your link to the link-up by clicking the button below. You can participate in all of the adventures or you can just do a few – no pressure. If you missed last week’s adventure about our trip to Tokyo you can find it here. And if you are new to my Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure project you can find out more about it here.


  1. Well you summed this up perfectly! Tyler and I are continually amazed at how germs are perceived here and we laugh at the hypocrisy and irony of things. Oh Korea. 😉


    1. It is simultaneously very advanced and very primitive. I think this is largely the result of having had so much growth in such a short period of time. They’ve shot ahead and in some ways and in other ways still cling to the past. I know such contradictions exist within any culture, but sometimes I find it hard to understand how they can’t see some of these problems in the logic that seem so obvious to us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s