Robert Schrader in Seoul, South Korea

Seoul in the Time of MERS

I could feel a slight cold coming on as my flight landed at Seoul’s Incheon Airport on Sunday evening. This is always inopportune when traveling in East Asia – pollution tends to exasperate respiratory illness – but especially now, when one particular respiratory illness is wracking South Korea.

Just breathe normally, I told myself as I passed through the quarantine channel, which seemed oddly unscrutinous given the hysteria over Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. I was relieved when I passed through without being pulled aside, but I was more surprised at how little fanfare there was – just a cardboard cutout of a cartoon camel with a be-masked Korean tourist backing away from it.

 

But this is always how it is, the disconnect between what the media says is happening and what is actually happening. It’s how it was when I visited India in early 2009, just a few weeks after the Mumbai terror attack; or Egypt in 2011, as news that the Arab Spring had run red was taking over the airwaves; or Thailand in 2014, as the government of Yingluck Shinawatra collapsed and martial law was imposed; or Tanzania and Rwanda (i.e. further from Ebola than the distance from New York to LA) last fall. Take your pick – it is always the same.

It is always the doing of idiots in the media who have never even been to a particular destination – well except for one token idiot, who’s on site “reporting” and pulling things out of context and speaking in a slightly panicked voice to help propagate the story that’s already been written.

The problem, in my experience anyway, is that finding evidence of any particular media narrative has been difficult to impossible. The only “terror” I witnessed during my trip to India was the vast amounts of plastic strewn everywhere. I happily traipsed right through Tahrir Square, and the only problem my American nationality caused was dozens of Egyptian men offering their daughters’ hands to me in marriage. Ladyboy performers and fake handbags on sale were more ubiquitous at the “protests” in Bangkok than men with guns or soldiers with tear gas. I didn’t get Ebola in East Africa because, well, the disease was confined to West Africa.

 

Seoul has been no different.

Not in my eyes, anyway. I mean you learn to assume – when you travel as much in the Far East I do, this is – that at least 50 per cent of people in a given city are going to be wearing face masks, not so much in fear of the epidemic du jour, but of germs in general.

Passersby would look at me like I was cursed when I sneezed or coughed, but then that’s always how it is when you sneeze or cough in this part of the world. East Asian people are almost superstitious when it comes to sickness.

And yet, for the most part, they are oddly unaffected by the hysteria. I remember sitting down for bulgogi at a restaurant near Changedokung Palace on Tuesday afternoon and not realizing until I was getting up to pay that a terrifying-looking news report about MERS was playing on TV.

The vast majority of the locals eating around me – certainly the sprightly cashier, who was practically ecstatic at my attempt to say “Thank you” to her in Korean – were totally oblivious to the spectacle.

 

Here are some fun facts about MERS. First, about 150 people (probably a few more by the time you read this) have been infected in South Korea, or a total of about 0.0003% of the country’s population. Of these, about 10 have died, which means that my chances of being struck by lightning during my lifetime are about 1.11 times higher.

And this is only if you subtract the largest predictive factor for getting infected with MERS in the first place: Being in a hospital where a MERS patient is currently being treated. Every single human-to-human case of transmission outside of the Middle East (and maybe there, too, I can’t be bothered to look) has occurred inside a hospital.

In other words: All you armchair physicians, in the media and on social media, need to sit the fuck down.

 
 
 

Yes, I blame you. Not you personally, maybe, but many of the “yous” out there. The dumbass on my Facebook page, who suggested my flight to Taipei last night would be canceled on account of MERS. The idiot who took the time to email me to say I should “get the fuck out of [Korea].” Even my own mother who, when I told her I had a minor cold, said “I hope you don’t have MERS.”

I can forgive my mother – poor lady hasn’t crossed state lines in nearly a decade – but those of you who call yourselves travelers (i.e. most people who read this blog and follow it on social media) should be hanging your heads in shame. If you can’t keep your mouth shut, or don’t feel confident speaking in a way that counters the prevailing media narrative, why not come to South Korea and see for yourself?

Oh that’s right – you’ll get MERS. Except you won’t.

 

I mean, look through these pictures of Seoul I’ve taken over the past few days. Do these look like scenes from the movie “Contagion”?

 
 
 

What about these ones? Does MERS take hold of the city at night?

 
 
 

The truth of the matter is that I am not, and have never been, at risk for MERS – and neither have the majority of people who live, work and travel in South Korea. None of the 200 people on my flight to Taipei last night brought MERS to Taiwan, nor did any of the thousands who flew there on the preceding days.

I’m not saying MERS isn’t a serious illness – like the rest of you, I’m something of an armchair physician – or that I can conclude, with scientific certainty, that it will never reach epidemic status. But the fact remains, as I stated earlier, that you are literally more likely to be struck by lightning during your lifetime than you are to get MERS, even if you’re crazy enough to travel in South Korea like I am.

The moral of the story? Come to South Korea now, while prices are still low!

 

About The Author

is the author of 722 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

 

informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Marta Kulesza June 11, 2015 at 11:42 pm

and that’s why I like reading blogs…especially the ones that don’t sugarcoat things like yours. It is how it is. Yet again I have realized I currently live at the end of the world (New Zealand), because this is the first time I am hearing about MERS! I am either really cut off from civilization or too focused on blogs (I think the second one).

Chantel June 12, 2015 at 4:52 pm

I saw that comment on your facebook about your flight being cancelled because of Mers! lol I was just like people aren’t really freaking out that much. I follow a couple youtubers from Korea and they said most people are going about their days normally.

Robert Schrader June 12, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Yes, it’s true. It’s a disservice to South Korea – and indeed, to the people suffering with MERS – to spread misinformation.

Robert Schrader June 12, 2015 at 5:50 pm

I like the second one too 🙂 And probably for the best.

Kevin Worldsavior June 13, 2015 at 3:27 am

Chantel, closing 2,000 schools in South Korea due to the spreading of MERS does not seem normal…

Kevin Worldsavior June 13, 2015 at 3:49 am

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Poor Girl June 14, 2015 at 10:05 pm

Yes yes yes yes! Thank you, Robert! I’ve been in lookout for updates from travelers especially during this hysteria. My dad and my auntie (who is, borrowing your words, an armchair physician) is discouraging me and my boyfriend to go to Korea (our flight is in the 25th) because of this MERS scare. I second to blame the media for always exaggerating issues like these, when even WHO declares there is no need to panic like everyone is doing. Now, let me show this post to my dad, share it in Facebook, and digitally slap people trying to get in my way -this is my first out-of-country trip, so…

Two Wandering Soles June 14, 2015 at 11:03 pm

Amen to that! We live in South Korea, and the attention that MERS has been getting is ridiculous. I have friends whose schools have forbid them to travel to Seoul, and know of schools who have cancelled all events due to MERS. Because that makes sense, right? I’ve even seen signs with a picture of a camel and a line through it… dang, I guess I can’t ride my camel to the coffee shop. We actually traveled to Seoul this past weekend, and everything was completely normal – people were out and about just like any other day. The media is blowing everything up and scaring people into doing completely unnecessary things (like closing schools and cancelling events).

Jiyoon June 15, 2015 at 12:36 am

I am Korean and I live in Seoul. To those who are still worried – it’s ok to come to Seoul. Staying cautious is great but just don’t freak out. Those who have died actually have been suffering from other serious diseases like cancer, hope it relieves you a bit..

By the way I found your blog searching for some info on traveling to South America, and I’m loving it! 🙂 Glad you visited Seoul and hope you’re enjoying Taiwan. It actually is my next destination in mind.. I’ll be waiting for your blog post!

Robert Schrader June 15, 2015 at 5:39 pm

Yes, it will be published on week from today. Stay tuned!

Robert Schrader June 15, 2015 at 5:39 pm

Yes, and ****ing up a country’s economy in the meaintime!

Robert Schrader June 15, 2015 at 5:39 pm

Have fun! And don’t let the haters hate!

Robert Schrader June 15, 2015 at 5:40 pm

Yes, but that has less to do with an actual medical threat and more with the superstition that underlies Korean culture.

Bhaskar Deka June 19, 2015 at 4:47 am

Hi! Your blogs are amazing reads. I enjoyed reading each one of them; they are very much informative as well. Also, I would like to invite you to read mine on http://blog.antilogvacations.com/. It would be a pleasure to know your opinion on the same. Thanks!

Molla Jafar Sadique June 24, 2015 at 4:03 am

BULGUKSA TEMPLE, NAMDAEMUN, LIANCOURT ROCKS, EVERLAND and LOTTE WORLD was my main attraction when I visited seoul. Those are fantastic! Fon

Simone Sherer June 26, 2015 at 5:36 am

God your photos are so dam good 🙂

Robert Schrader June 26, 2015 at 7:48 am

You’re so damn sweet!

TheGlobeWanderers June 29, 2015 at 3:55 am

Love this. You talk so much damn sense. Unfortunately we live in an age of fear. An age where people believe everything they read or hear and use it as an excuse not to travel. People are scared to leave their armchairs and explore the world all because of the ‘what ifs’. It’s such a shame. They should all read this post. 🙂 Great photos too!

Gabby

Chintan July 1, 2015 at 10:10 am

Love this! i didn’t know that Taiwan has both modern and cultural qualities. Good one.

ListsforAll July 2, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Thanks for sharing! Love being able to get some insight into different cultures.

Tessa Cruz/Viajera Filipina July 6, 2015 at 2:12 pm

I appreciate this sensible article, Robert. At the moment, the hysteria is circling around Greece and its debt crisis. The media is making it appear that the current Greek society is about to come crumbling down. Tourists are scared by the photos of the lines at the ATM. It’s fascinating how professional travel bloggers like yourself are the ones bringing the real situation on the ground with proper context, whether it’s South Korea or Greece.

Robert Schrader July 10, 2015 at 7:40 am

I would LOVE to visit Greece right now and send a big middle finger to the international media!

Robert Schrader July 10, 2015 at 7:43 am

Thanks! Good luck!

Robert Schrader July 10, 2015 at 7:43 am

Thank you!

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Travel.Sleep.Repeat July 23, 2015 at 7:12 am

I couldn’t agree more with your post, I was also in South Korea around the same time as you and couldn’t believe the contrast of what was being portrayed in the media versus the reality of actually being there! I’ve shared my experiences on my blog too 🙂

KyleOlsen14 July 26, 2015 at 12:43 pm

This is a great piece for so many reasons, but no matter what you do there’s always someone who thinks they know best whether it’s your mother or a well-meaning traveler who has never been to South Korea (cough, cough) oh yes, that part was intentional… and thinks they’ve any business advising what you should or shouldn’t do. Risk is inherent with every step we take from the moment we get out of bed every morning but it’s the better part of living 🙂

Robert Schrader July 26, 2015 at 4:34 pm

I agree! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 🙂

Robert Schrader July 26, 2015 at 4:41 pm

I will have to go look 🙂

The-WorldWide August 4, 2015 at 5:35 am

furthermore, that is the reason I like travel blogs. This will not waste your time. It is the manner by which it is. Once more I have acknowledged I as of now inhabit the apocalypse, on the grounds that this is the first occasion when I am catching wind of MERS! I am either truly cut off from human progress or excessively centered around online journals.

Robert Schrader August 11, 2015 at 9:18 am

😉

Sophie October 12, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Heading to Korea or planning to do so? Your trip can’t be complete without sampling some of Korea’s fabulous street food. Thanks to Keith Kim, you now know what to try on the street.
Click on the link below.
http://seouljournal.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=206%3Aguide-to-korean-street-food&Itemid=22

Sophie October 14, 2015 at 5:42 pm

Heading to Korea or planning to do so? Your trip can’t be complete without sampling some of Korea’s fabulous street food. Thanks to Keith Kim, you now know what to try on the street.
Click on the link below.
http://seouljournal.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=206%3Aguide-to-korean-street-food&Itemid=22

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