[Opinion] Why South Korea may have needed MERS
As I make my daily commute by subway I notice that the number of people wearing masks (myself included) to prevent MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) seems to have increased again. A short-term fix to a crisis that will hopefully blow over in the next week or so. However Korea needs to use the MERS outbreak as an opportunity to engage in more longer-term thinking.
On June 10, the Mariner of the Seas, a 13,800 ton cruise ship carrying around 6,000 Chinese tourists docked at Youngdo Cruise Terminal in Busan. Due to concerns over the MERS virus, the tourists decided to forego their sightseeing trip to Busan and remain on the ship. The buses that were rented to take them around remained in the parking lot. (Yonhap News)
Last week we saw the Blue House and the Mayor of Seoul engaged in what has become the typical response of the Korean authorities to a crisis: mud-slinging, blame, and point-scoring. “What can we do to solve the crisis,” and “how can we prevent this happening again?” are mere afterthoughts. We can also predict the aftermath: nothing changes.
Although it is easy to be cynical about the competence of the Korean authorities the roots of this problem lie much deeper. Since the Korean War, Korea’s growth has been remarkable but this growth has come at a high price. And that price is an absence, or indeed an ignorance, of appropriate safety standards. The ‘balee balee’ (quickly quickly) mindset that built the shining towers in Gangnam has also brought with it corner-cutting, flexibility when none should be permitted and a lack of awareness of health and safety.
A lack of safety coupled with the traditional East-Asian culture of face-saving (i.e. avoiding embarrassment to yourself or colleagues at all costs), has resulted in a toxic mix of repeated accidents with a complete absence of responsibility. One does not have to go back as far as the Sampoong department store collapse (1995, 502 dead). In the last 18 months Korea has suffered the roof collapse in Gyeongu (10 dead), the Sewol ferry sinking (295 dead), the platform collapse at Pangyo (16 dead) and now MERS (7 dead so far). A special law or political squabbling usually diverts the public’s attention until the next incident occurs, and the status quo prevails.
All the above accidents and crises could have been averted. The key is education (which is ironic in a country that prides itself on its culture of learning). Having easily bendable rules and regulations in all areas of life does indeed help to grease the wheels of the ballee ballee train. But as the train keeps derailing (with horrendous loss of life) it is time for Koreans to be taught that rules (especially when it comes to safety) are black and white. The train may run a little slower, and the passengers may complain, but in the long term they will learn to appreciate the view from the window.
While it is a tragedy for the victims and their families, Korea needed MERS. If MERS had been a more serious virus such as Ebola, confirmed patients playing golf or visiting numerous hospitals would not have been simply embarrassing but catastrophic. Korea now has an opportunity not only to install adequate disease-control systems but to start to educate its citizens of the importance of following safety rules. Whether it takes this opportunity, and whether Koreans want to change their attitude towards safety, remains to be seen. My train is still hurtling down the track.
By James Copeland, Assistant Professor in the Department of Law at Hongik University
The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.
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