Friday, September 18, 2009


"Sickness shows us what we are." - Latin Proverb

We made our decision to return to Korea a month ago, but Korean Mother has not told her friends we are returning, because she is concerned that if they know she is fraternising with people who have just come back from overseas, they will not want to meet her for fear of contracting Swine Flu.

Yes, by all accounts fear of the H1N1 Virus has reached pandemic levels in Korean society. The panic is apparently so infectious that its even spread to one of the few foreign bloggers in Korea I still get time to read. It's one thing for Koreans to succumb, indeed I expected it as they tend to think in packs, but you know things are bad when it hits the more free-wheeling ex-pats too.

Still, I freely admit I might feel differently if I had been living in Korea recently. There have been a handful of deaths so if there is a outbreak of fear it does have tangible cause. And local fears have hardly been placated by the realisation that the Korean Government, despite considerable fears over the spread of Bird Flu in Asia during the last few years, completely failed to stockpile anti-viral drugs in preparation for a pandemic originating from this high-mortality disease. Meanwhile the British Government managed to amass 50 million doses of Tamiflu in preparation for a flu outbreak, proving that they actually can do things right once in awhile. The fact that the Flu outbreak which it is being used to fight was not the one they expected, takes a little away from their sense of prescience. By comparison, the Korean Government seems to have been asleep at the wheel.

It's possible that the Korean Government actually made another serious mistake, although this is a harder one to call. It appears as though they allowed public panic to break out, which - according to what I'm hearing purely anecdotally through personal contact - is leading to shortages of health and cleaning products in marts both small and large. I understand that people are reluctant to go to work. There is clearly a danger that the emptying of shelves could extend further into general food items should fears grow, either through panic buying or due to infrastructural breakdowns caused by staff shortages.

To put the Korean experience into perspective, where there have currently been 4 or 5 deaths, there have been 75 to date in the UK, 50 of those being in the last month. Not that you'd probably know this from the British media - it's not that the figures are necessarily being repressed outright, it's just that you'd have to look quite hard to find them - and what general coverage of the pandemic exists is not featuring very highly in any mainstream news programmes, or at least, not the ones that most of the public watch. Rightly or wrongly, one suspects the hand of Government is all over this in the background, quietly handling the public. And it's working - there is no panic, people go about their business normally, driving by temporary signs that might otherwise be directing them to their local 'Anti-Viral Collection Point', riding on buses with Orwellian quantities of advertising telling people to stay at home if they are sick, meeting people, eating in cafes, and generally socialising as though nothing had changed. The shelves in the supermarkets are stocked, and the country keeps running normally. Move along now, nothing to see here.

So it seems that soon I'll be moving from a country where the pandemic is actually relatively bad but you wouldn't know it unless you read the signs, to one where thus far the outbreak is relatively mild but you might well already feel as though you're living under siege from the panic people are displaying. And this does make me worried - what happens when Swine Flu in Korea is as bad as it is in the UK? The virus may be bad enough, but the effects of the panic could be far worse. It's certainly going to be a very interesting environment we are plunging back into when we return - and we have yet to see how Korean Mother's friends react when they do find out that we have returned to Korea, bringing our perceived foreign diseases with us.

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