Friday, 25 September 2009

Swine Flu

*Note: This entry is based on personal experience. It’s an “Adventure Blog”, not a Wikipedia entry. As a Cell Biology Major, I can talk about the H1N1 virus all day, but for your sake, I’m leaving out all of the “boring stuff”. Yes, I do understand the dangers of a virulent strain that we don’t have immunity to (trust me when I say that my intentions are not to undermine the hazards), but if you want to find out why I’m able to sleep soundly at night, take a quick peek at some of the millions of web pages dedicated to the H1N1 virus.

Swine flu, swine flu, swine flu…

It’s nearly impossible to go through a full day without hearing a mention of it.

Every morning at Bunam Middle School, two teachers armed with masks and thermometers greet students. It’s a “swine flu checkpoint” as they call it, and if a student registers a slightly elevated temperature, they’re immediately sent back home.

Schools all across Korea are shutting down due to student infection (there are several English Teachers that I know of who have tested positive), numerous festivals and concerts have being cancelled, and air travel procedures have never been stricter.

The Asian countries are definitely professionals when it comes to infectious controls (they have quite a bit of experience with their long history of epidemics), but from what I’ve seen, some people take it more seriously than others.

Let me first point out that the Beijing Airport had the stringiest controls I’ve ever seen (papers, stamps, sanitizing stations, particle detectors, thermal cameras etc…), but since then, precautionary measures have been really hit or miss; for example, the use of gloves and masks.

On our way to Pohang, everybody at the bus stop had gloves and masks. The bus door opened, and the bus driver was also wearing gloves. Nearly 50% of all occupants on the bus had masks (all ages), and roughly 25% had gloves. In the major cities, the use of gloves and masks are much less. This is slightly counter-intuitive if you think about where the highest risk of an outbreak would be, but at least some measure of control is in place. On the outside, standards seem quite good, but the big problem lies within the fabric of the culture.

Koreans are very well known for their communal eating practices (a single main dish is served with many side dishes that everyone eats from), and this also applies to public food vendors. I’ve seen several different vendors serving food-on-a-stick (usually chicken or pressed fish) with a communal dipping bowl of soy sauce. Westerners who are grossed out by “that one double-dipper at a party” would absolutely flip if they saw this. At the Pohang central station, I watched as several strangers fished out sticks of meat from a pot of boiling water and dipped them into a communal bowl of soy sauce after every bite. One man even took off his mask to join in. After enjoying the bacterial swamp from the hundreds of people who dipped into the same bowl before him, he casually licked his fingers (as he handled the money to pay the vendor), placed his facemask back on, and walked away. This type of “double-standard” is everywhere. I find it easier to sleep if I pretend it doesn’t exist.

I’ve yet to see one person cover their mouth in a sneeze. It’s not uncommon to see someone lower his or her mask and blast the sneeze right into the air (even in a bustling bus terminal). Following the sneeze, he or she will remove their gloves, wipe their nose with the palm of their hand, and continue touching anything and everything around them as if nothing happened. On the counter next to them, a bottle of hand-sanitizer will remain untouched.

Hand-sanitizers are everywhere, but most people don’t use them. My school was sent a shipment of hand-sanitizers a few weeks ago and the bottles still have the seals on them. I guess this is why they’ve hired staff at grocery stores to stand at the entrances and squirt everyone’s hands as they enter. If someone doesn’t force the sanitation, it won’t be done. I’m not saying Korea is dirty by any means (it’s obvious everywhere you look how much time and money goes into the upkeep of this beautiful country), but some people still abide by the “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” philosophy.

On the surface, it seems like the population is quite infectious control savvy, but there are some things that you just can’t change about a culture… even with the threat of a super-bug.

- Ken


  1. Christine(Jess' Mom)24 October 2009 at 12:03

    when I was in London, England, I often saw caughing people in the buses and tubes(underground) and after they sneezed out on their palm which covered their mouth and nose, they unthinkly touched the bars in the middle of standing section, then the next commuter holds the same spot for their balance... it got my attention with swine flu... which I heard it from BBC radio everyday telling how people should prevent themselves, schools and public...
    there is two dozens of food vendors underneath of London Bridge who sell all kinds of yammy foods, it's called Borough Food Market... when I visit there, i heard a big noisy sound when the train passed by the heavy metal railroad, then it seemed like a lot of flying dust came down in the air just above the vendor's small piece of fabrics covering food stand and vendor wearing gloves sneezed and cleaned with napkins and served the customers...
    anyway, i enjoyed the foods there...
    Ontario has just started the swine flu vaccination this week
    still some doctors aren't suggesting to 'pregnant'
    like you said, 'This type of “double-standard” is everywhere. I find it easier to sleep if I pretend it doesn’t exist.' i agree with you, Ken (sorry for writing so long :)

  2. Yah. It's actually like that here too now. We were all handed huge packs of Clorox wipes for our workstations at work but nobody uses them. Our bottles of hand sanitizers at each door remain at the same level. I think that those who always washed their hands as a habit (healthcare workers, Grandpa!) continue to do so but those that really need to, aren't warming up to the idea. It'll take time.