Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lessons for the Swinish Multitude*


Here is the location of the quarantined teachers in Seoul, from an interview with the author of An English Teacher under Quarantine in South Korea:
We’re at the Human Resource Development Center, a government run facility outside Seoul just a bit in Seocho-dong, close to Nambu Bus Terminal. Here’s the link to the location:

Original Post:

Sunday night I was reading on a bus stopped at a traffic light, tuning out the radio, when I realized I'd heard, right after the chime indicating the top of the hour, the words '외국인 영어 강사,' or 'foreign English instructor' more than once. "What now?" I thought. The sound of the bus moving again soon drowned it out, but I caught that more teachers had been found to have swine influenza. Then I went home and found out that Brian had discovered the blog An English Teacher under Quarantine in South Korea; soon two others, Ruby Ramblings, and Sparkling Chaos with Brian Dear became known (with the writer of the latter now confirmed as being infected). Brian has an information-packed post here, as well as others here and here. More can be found at the Hub of Sparkle (here and here).

I had my own experience today with my employer asking me if I was sick or if I'd met with foreigners recently. If she had realized we'd be quarantined - and unable to work for some time - if the answer was yes, I wonder if she would have asked. Oh, and she noted that parents have called her asking if my co-worker or I were sick or not. The media seems to be doing its job well. My former employer actually owns a franchise of the institute that has shut down it's Seoul campuses for two weeks. I can't imagine she's too thrilled (though it's probably better than this).

It should be pointed out that this is not the first time swine have invaded Seoul. A November 2005 Chosun Ilbo article titled "Seoul Trembles at Wild Boar Invasion" begins:
The capital is under threat from an unlikely invasion after wild boars were sighted at several locations around the metropolitan area. Last month there were repeated sightings at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill Hotel; now a den that is home to scores of the aggressive beasts has been discovered in Achasan.
Not that these two invasions, or the media's treatment of them, are similar at all.

It does seem that the media (the English-language media at any rate) is not reporting about the forced isolation of foreigners who had been in contact with those infected. The opinion of people being quarantined is that it is only foreigners who were in contact with those who contracted swine flu who are being taken to quarantine facilities, but not Koreans, who are told to stay home. According to Brian Dear,
The Korean staff and our staff-instructors who were with our orientation the entire time, in close quarters are being quarantined in place. I know this from an email I received from my trainer. The trainer thought I'd be able to be the same (I emailed him before I was "caught") and he told me to simply stay in my apartment for a week and call my school boss or headquarters. Also the other people who were in daily contact with us are not here either. The most specific "proof" is simply that our orientation instructors aren't here, based on the email I received explaining that my instructor was "not leaving his apartment." I probably would rather be here. I think it's a much better situation since we aren't slipping through the cracks. More importantly, I realize that the danger of spreading the disease is very high. Of course, for the quarantine to work, it must be consistently applied.
Standards to protect people - especially children - focusing on E-2 visa holders and not being consistently applied across the board? As if that would ever happen.** He also mentions that
some folks had no notice.. the CDC showed up at their doors at 4am in some cases and told them that they were "going for some tests" -- so a few people brought absolutely nothing with them
There have been numerous comments about Korean behavior like lack of hand washing and not covering mouths when coughing from people commenting that Koreans would be more likely to spread the flu. Perhaps they're overstating the point, but in a post last year I noted this global survey from ACNielson, where we're told that South Korean people are the world’s most vulnerable (52%) to cold.
People in South Korea seemed to be the sickest, suffering from most ailments and topping the global rankings for suffering from colds, indigestion, heartburn and toothaches.
Hmmm. Perhaps kimchi doesn't stop colds after all. I'm sure it helps with the indigestion and heartburn, however.

My favorite quote from Ruby Ramblings?
The first thing the head adminstrator said when we arrived at the quarantine facility was that they have not tried a quarantine of this scale before, and that “Japan and America have both failed at containing the flu virus. We are going to prove that we will not fail, but succeed at this.”
Well, that's one way to get back at Japan for the World Baseball Classic, and at America for embarrassing Korean nationalists with its actions in 1945 and 1950 (and for Ohno!). How will they succeed at containing the flu virus? According to this Joongang Ilbo article,
a spokesman at the Health Ministry said even if some of those [Chungdahm] branches continue operation, there are no legal grounds currently available to force them to close.

“Unless a specific regional administrative unit sees an outbreak of the flu, it’s impossible to bring the branches under the law,” said the spokesman. “If we do so, we could face criticism from the public that we are taking excessively harsh measures.”
Ah, I see. No 'excessively harsh measures' for members of the danil minjok who came into contact with infected persons - they get 'quarantined in place' at home - but foreigners who came into contact with infected persons can be rounded up with no warning or explanation at 4am and detained for an uncertain amount of time, and those with no indication that they've had any contact with infected persons can be told "not to interact and meet with any other foreigners for the unforeseeable future as they could be carriers of the disease."

Considering I've been told in the last week that 'Koreans aren't catching the swine flu because they eat kimchi,' and considering the misunderstanding of the disease (helped along by the media) that it's a foreign virus, and considering the way this is playing on xenophobic attitudes that die hard, I can't help but see the similarity to the belief held by some a year ago that because of a misunderstanding of the science, media disinformation, xenophobia, and a belief that Koreans were 'special' (genetically) and therefore more susceptible, mad cow disease was going to ravage the Korean peninsula.

Oh well. It could be worse. In 1888 there were riots in Seoul because people believed foreigners "kidnapped children, killed them, and made a powder from their bodies that was used for photographic film."

Speaking of which, I've only got one picture left on my current roll of film, so I should finish this up.*** I really do hope things turn out well for those who are detained at the moment, and that these quarantines don't expand unreasonably.

*The title means nothing; I just liked the title of the 1790s weekly paper published by Thomas Spence that I came across while doing research (Pig's Meat. or Lessons for the Swinish Multitude).

**Perhaps now might be the time for Anti-English Spectrum to release some new comics about depraved foreign teachers (NSFW). May I suggest, in addition to the priapic teacher high on E clutching a fake degree and syringe full of AIDS-tainted blood chasing a group of elementary school girls, that we add a runny, pig-like nose? If drawn in a cute enough manner, the comics could probably be aimed at children and published in the Korea Herald, where they would go well with this article.

*** Just kidding. I use a digital camera these days.


kushibo said...

Matt wrote:
The opinion of people being quarantined is that it is only foreigners who were in contact with those who contracted swine flu who are being taken to quarantine facilities, but not Koreans, who are told to stay home.

This was retracted or corrected (here and here).

I wouldn't want to be quarantined and I can understand people blowing off steam with their blogs, but frankly I think this business of making the quarantine look like an exercise in xenophobia is not just getting ludicrous, it's detrimental.

Two-thirds of the people infected so far have been English teachers, and so English teachers and their cohorts and contacts are going to be a focus.

As for Koreans getting colds easily, I think the biggest culprit (or one of the biggest) would be people feeling compelled to go to work even when they're sick.

Someone came into our office even though he was like the walking dead and the guy — who was disgusting even when he's not sick — created a two-week cycle of flu infection where half the staff was extremely ill. I don't think I ever wanted to kick a sick person's ass so badly.

matt said...

From the interview I quoted above:

"The Korean staff and our staff-instructors who were with our orientation the entire time, in close quarters are being quarantined in place."

What I wrote:

"The opinion of people being quarantined is that it is only foreigners who were in contact with those who contracted swine flu who are being taken to quarantine facilities, but not Koreans, who are told to stay home."

That retraction does not change what I wrote above.

I agree with you about being compelled to go to work - and school - when sick being a big reason for Koreans getting so many colds. Another thing is that hagwons are an additional space in which colds can spread between schools.

kushibo said...

That retraction does not change what I wrote above.

You're right. I was getting being quarantined at home and getting quarantined at all mixed up.

If I were in Korea I'd make some calls to see what's really going on. When blogs seem to be fixated on finding something wrong like this...

So is this the latest xenophobic witch hunt? Last year, it was diseased American cows. This year it’s diseased American teachers?

On what planet does this make any sense? Are Americans more genetically susceptible, even if they haven’t left Korea in years?
... which then "update" to include this...

Okay, so it looksl like they are starting to quarantine the people the teachers came into contact with.

... then I'm not sure how much we can trust the veracity of such reports.

It is an unfortunate fact that most of the H1N1 infected — so far — are not just foreigners but English teachers, and even the Koreans infected are — so far — people coming back from abroad.

In such a context it makes sense to apply extra attention on such groups, as long as adequate attention is being applied elsewhere where it's needed. But it only stymies efforts if people are sitting around watching this and making claims like it's the latest round of xenophobia.

I'm not saying you are doing that, but that certainly seems to be a dominant theme among the K-blogs. That and the idea that this is just a normal flu epidemic. It's not, and that's in part because of these "overreactions" by public health folks. Thus far, there is a global mortality rate of 0.7%, seven times higher than that of a regular flu epidemic.

Were people not as clued in to the prospect of this round of H1N1 becoming a global pandemic, the delay in getting treatment could itself raise the morality rate and the infection rate.

By the way, I think you make a good point out the hagwons being good places for cross-infection between school populations.

Anonymous said...

So Rob and I went out there tonight. It was really quite an experience. We got to talk with the woman who is in charge of the whole program. Plus we got to talk to some of the teachers (about 5 or 6 out of say 30) for a good half hour. They were perched on the roof at a distance of about 20 meters. Rob is gonna have a write up about it on his blog and I think the KH if I remember right.

I interviewed people on whether there seemed to be any bias in the quarantine selection process, and the consensus seemed to be that there wasn't. There were Koreans who were allowed to go home, but there were also foreigners who got to go home. There were also Koreans in quarantine with the foreigners. The list I saw had at least 4 Korean names.

Some (most?) of the teachers had just arrived and the ones I talked said they didn't have homes to go back to so the facility made sense. But just as the 2 teachers who were explaining this to me finished, another teacher said, "I have a home I could've gone to!!!"

I was also concerned about how careful the health care pros were in following proper quarantine protocol so that individuals weren't put at a higher risk than if they'd been able to stay home. The WHO has good info on the swine flu here:

It seems at the beginning the whole thing was a bit of a circus and the proper procedure wasn't really followed

But according to the teachers this wasn't out of any lack of concern for the teachers as foreigners, just plain old fashion negligence.

Patient zero is up and around. But about 4 or 5 people had been moved to hospitals because they'd contracted H1N1. The folks I saw looked as healthy as can be. The director says they will be out this Sunday at the latest.

Lets see how all this plays out in the media & society, but at the epicenter things looked ok.

Sujan Patricia said...

People with regular exposure to pigs are at increased risk of swine flu. More than 1100 people worldwide have died from swine flu since it emerged in Mexico and the US in April, according to the latest figures from the World.