Sunday, December 6, 2009

Foreigners excluded from Blue House tours because of swine flu.

An interesting post on Gusts of Popular Feeling, which shows that although the Blue House's English-language page says tours of South Korea's executive office are temporarily closed, the Korean-language page says the tours are still on but that children under the age of 18 and foreigners are not permitted to take it.

I've said elsewhere that I think South Korea has done a pretty good job of responding to swine flu. In April, when the Korean Centers for Disease Control announced preventative measures
The best method is prevention. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.

Also, try to avoid close contact with sick people. If you feel sick, the government recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

I joked that there were no preventative measures available to Koreans since they never cover their mouths, never wash their hands, and never stay home when they're sick.

I quoted the blogger Places and Words in September about some "insanity" at her school which typified the scene in lots of places:
I'm not so sure what the feel is back in the states, but all of the Koreans around me are acting I-N-S-A-N-E. They are constantly worried about swine flue, but they aren't actively doing anything to prevent the spread of it, or even the spread of any other virus such as the common cold. There's still no adequate soap in bathrooms, none in the bathroom at my school. No one covers their mouths to sneeze or cough. I've never ever seen any of my students wash their hands at any time throughout the day. They brush their teeth at least ten times but never wash their hands. They share everything- lollipops, chopsticks, apples-which isn't a bad thing but when you're worried about a pandemic, well, I guess you should practice a bit more caution. There is mandatory quarantine for anyone who's left the country. That's 7 days one is supposed to stay confined to their homes. However, in my city at least, myself and all of my friends have confirmed that none of the Koreans have taken the quarantine and showed up to work the very next day after they returned from a trip abroad. My own co-teacher told me they don't have to worry as much because it is a virus from the Mexicans and not from Koreans. And she's an 'educated' woman! A friend emailed today to say they are temperature checking all of the students that walk through the front gate at his school, but they are not changing the cover on the thermometer.

In my experience people are still coughing on each other and occassionally still coming to work when sick, but there are hand sanitizers everywhere, signs encouraging people to wash hands, and public awareness campaigns about handwashing and staying home when sick. A big improvement of hygeine in a short time, and it's kept the number of deaths at a fraction of that in North America.

I've said that I think Korea has done a good job of responding to swine flu, but the catch is Koreans have done a poor job of responding to the threat of swine flu. It was at first treated as a foreigners' disease, as were the preventative measures aimed at them: a large hagwon chain wanted to take the passports away from its foreign teachers, another chain announced it didn't hire infected foreign teachers (yeah no shit), foreign teachers were considered swine flu targets, foreign teachers were being quarantined while Koreans were not, and in May I collected some responses from teachers asked about flu by their schools. From commentor Robot Mike:
Apparently some of the parents at my hagwon have been phoning up enquiring about us and swine flu even though we have been in the country for 11 months.
Then my really nice former workmate joked something about my love of Kimchi being the reason why I haven't got the flu yet.
It's like they think Korean people are naturally immune to it or something.

And from commenter Stuart:
I was also quizzed over the phone yesterday,They asked me if I had been out of the country recently.

They only asked me, not any Korean person in my school.

I have to seriously question the logic behind these checks.

I read on Facebook about a friend's school that let a Korean teacher come to work and teach even though his son was home sick with swine flu, and we read this story on Dave's:
My friend went to Thailand for summer vacation. Upon his return he was given a 3 day quarantine period by his principal. During the 3 days he was supposed to watch videos at home and make question sheets and tests for the teachers to use in class. Well, the principal didn't trust him to do the work at home, so she told him he had to come to school and do the work in one of the classsrooms. Then, while he was at the school working on these resources, he noticed one of the Korean teachers was there teaching her classes. He thought this was odd because he had seen her in Thailand when he was on vacation. He asked the principal why he had a "quarantine" and she did not need one. The answer; because she is Korean and ate Kimchi on her vacation, she can not be sick.

Be sure to read through all the comments on those earlier threads and to browse through the "Swine flu in Korea" category for more.

In November I posted about Chonnam National University posting this sign on their Language Education Center

barring entrance to people who had been overseas within the week. An understandable concern perhaps, though the sign was posted only on the Language Education Center building, one used most frequently by foreigners. I looked at follow-up preventative measures at the university, including use of an Automatic Thermal Imaging Camera and locking all other entrances to the building in order to require visitors to use the main entrance.

A measure not only dangerous but found only in this particular building, not in other high-traffic areas such as dorms, cafeterias, or the library.

The problem with considering swine flu a foreigners' disease and directing measures only at them is at this point, as I think most Koreans will tell you, you run the risk of getting it anywhere and from anyone. Many fall festivals were cancelled because the government encouraged organizers to cancel events that were to attract more than 1,000 visitors over two or more days, and posters all over the place encourage people to avoid crowds (ironic, of course, when you see the signs on city buses). As far as foreign teachers go, since the summer there's been more a risk of getting sick from their students---especially since students weren't staying home when sick---than from the other way around.

It would be reasonable to exclude foreigners who have arrived in-country within the past week. Rather than prohibiting all foreigners, why not simply make it a requirement to bring a passport with you when visiting and barring entry to those without it or to those, Korean or foreign, who have come to Korea within the past week or ten days? It sounds like somebody decided it would just be easier to keep out all the foreigners rather than checking documents and having to deal with foreign-language conversations.


Julian Warmington said...

Well reported, BiJ.

There is, however, just one outstanding question which still nags at the back of my mind, every time this kind of set of issues is raised.


If kimchi is so good against so many such vicious ailments as H1N1, then, how come it does not protect one from fan death?!

Brian said...

Ask A Korean wrote about fan death a little while ago, which is worth a read:

Not sure where I stand on the issue, if I even care enough to stand on it in the first place. I just wonder if anybody has had any lucking calling in sick with a little fan illness.

fattycat said...

N1H1 flu has been going through one of my classes like crazy. Seems like half the class has been sick so far.

One student was never tested but just told he probably had it and was given the medicine and told to stay home for 2 weeks. Another student was tested but while the test results were waiting the doctor told him it was ok for him to go to school. Couple of days later...guess what? He has it. Etc etc.

The school knows about it and has decided not to do anything and so the students get mad at me when I tell them they cant come to class and I tell them they have to go home because their Korean teachers have told them it's ok as long as they've taken Tamiflu or are feeling ok.

I might have had it. I was sick for awhile but because I had all the symptoms but not a fever the doctors sent me home. And not like really would have wanted a second opionion since I would have been quarantined and forced to pay other teachers to cover my classes while my students cough on them and infect them too.

JSK said...

Closed for healthy foreigners but open for Koreans who may have the disease??

How can this be considered a health measure and not an senseless xenophobic spasm?

You can see they know its wrong by they way they lie about it being "CLOSED". It's not closed to people who don't read the English notice. Doors are open for the kookmin...

Bob said...

Dude, in a country where the Independence Hall contains a shooting gallery are you really that surprised?

Chris in South Korea said...

That's definitely worth writing in a future article.

Has the Blue House not set up a Thermal Imaging System like the rest of the country has?

Wish I owned stock in the company(ies) making those things...

Hmm, wonder if a foreigner could register on the Korean-language page.

Matt said...

Well, my public school in Daegu has actually dealt with swine flu in a calm, organized manner. One of our 5th grade teachers tested positive for the swine flu and he actually stayed home for a week.

Now, I wish they wouldn't use the same thermometer on all the kids when checking temperatures, but PROGRESS!

phi154 said...

this is fun to do at work with the Koreans that understand enough English to listen to you tell a story:

Tell one of the stories that you heard or read here, but change the origins of the people, example, change Korea/Korean to like Germany, and the other country to some other Asian nationality.

Then when they see the illogical nature of the situation....Bang let them have the truth!

Kristen said...

The 'insanity' i deal with may just be my particular experience with my school. They truly are mystifying.

The students have their temperatures checked at the gates. Those with a fever are put in the back of the classroom and must go to the nurse's office every hour for another check. When it disappears, they can return to their regular seat.

There was a rather large H1N1 outbreak last month and the school was 'closed'. In reality, it was only closed in the newspapers. The students were told to not wear their uniforms and come in anyway. The only ones home were the ones that were actually confirmed with the virus. Since then, the number of students that appear ill has increased ten fold.

To me this is stupid. Therefore, in my opinion and experience, Korea is not doing well with swine flu prevention.

Mike said...

Is swine flu even an issue still? I haven't heard a peep about it in weeks!

Brian said...

The Herald's Adam Walsh is writing about it tonight:

I appreciate that the Herald covers issues we talk about and issues relevant to us. But I wonder if it ought to start citing Gusts of Popular Feeling, since that was the blog that broke this story in the first place. After all, papers routinely quote each other when reporting stories, and I think this is a good example of where a citation would be the right thing to do. After all, the blogs do provide a lot of the English-language news about Korea.

John said...

Brian if you read this I lost your email. Could you please contact me.

Brian said...

John I'm not sure who you are, but you can find my email address in the "about" section on my sidebar.