Normally by this time on a Wednesday evening, Kris and I will be deciding what we want to do with our last remaining moments of time together before heading to bed for the night. Tonight is different. Tonight we have no school tomorrow. We had no school today even. Why? Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS for short. While the number of people infected with the disease may be very low, Korea has been caught in a wave of panic about it, leading to more people wearing face masks, general unwillingness to go out into crowded public spaces, and, most pertinently to us, the closing of schools.
MERS is apparently a very new disease, only discovered in 2012. It is relatively difficult to contract because it does not live for long outside of the cozy bacterial wonderland that is the human body. However, if a person does manage to catch it, there is estimated to be a 40% fatality rate. Yes, a person can go from perfectly healthy to dead within a period of no longer than 12 days. That is a rather frightening thought – one can’t help but contemplate one’s mortality if it’s possible that in 12 days you could no longer be on this planet simply because someone coughed on you for an extended period of time.
We first got wind of the disease’s presence in Korea on Monday, when it was a prominent newspaper headline. It was a curiosity – a peculiar disease had made its way into the country where we were. That afternoon, a case was reported in Dongtan. It was in our city. On Tuesday, the man in Dongtan who had the disease died. It was killing in our city. That afternoon, we were told that school would be cancelled for the rest of the week, as a precautionary measure to prevent the disease infecting our students. As with many things in Korea, MERS went from nothing to ever-present in little over a day.
Hearteningly, the number of current cases is still miniscule – only 30, at time of writing. Even so, with Korea’s population density as ridiculously high as it is, it is possible for the disease to explode at any point. In order to prevent this from happening, the government has quarantined over 1300 people that could possibly have come into contact with the infected. It is almost surreal how a few dozen people have the entirety of the Korean medical profession watching them, waiting to see if they have spread the disease to the unsullied masses. More people will probably be killed on Korean roads each day than die from MERS, but the lightning-riddled cloud of mass hysteria has formed itself, and the storm doesn’t seem to be passing any time soon.
Until it does, I am perfectly content to sit here, in our apartment, with Kris’ sweet voice and ukulele keeping the frenzy of the outside world at bay, making the most (or least) of our extra few days off. We will undoubtedly return to school soon. But we will do so rejuvenated from a 4-and-a-half day weekend (we still had to go in this morning for reasons unknown). Unless we catch MERS. Just kidding!