Sunday, August 16, 2009

H1N1/Swine Flu in Korea -- I predict all schools will be closed in Korea for 10 days this fall/winter--probably Sept/Oct

I've been following the H1N1 stories on the Net for a while now, and usually read most of the stuff relating to Korea.

One of the reason I've been following this is because foreign teachers are seen (by the media) as a kind of 'plague' or 'virus' that threatens to infect the 'purity' of Korean culture and Korea in general. At least that's the kind of discourse I read when the Korean media constantly puts out stories about the 'qualifications' of foreign teachers--especially when those qualifications are put in the context of ethics and morals and saying were not qualified . . . but never providing specific hard facts to back this up which then leads to the simple basis of it's because we're not Korean that we're not qualified . . . wrap all of these things up in constant references and juxtapositioning with pedophiles, sex crimes, drug crimes, etc, and this is where my concerns begin to rise about how there's now going to be a real virus in Korea that will impact the day to day issues of Koreans and if the H1N1 virus continues to be connected to, and embedded with, the foreign teachers discourse of disease and a general threat to the well being of the country things are going to become 'interesting.'

The Korean cultural imaginary seems to have different kinds of fear of infection from outside influences. It fears the linguistic pollution and infection from English language and the effects it's having on Korean language with the appearance of some many Koreanized words aka 'Konglish'; it fears the effects of western cultural values and beliefs on its neo-Confucian culture; it fears the effects of immigrant men and women marrying Koreans and the mixed ethnicity children that come from those marriages . . . and the list goes on.

When I think about the way in which the Korean media has dealt with things like the Mad Cow scare I begin to feel very concerned about how they're going to approach the imminent H1N1 outbreak that I am certain is going to hit Korea this fall/winter as Korean students and teachers return from studying overseas, the massive influx of foreign teachers entering Korea for the beginning/renewal of contracts, and all the Koreans who traveled overseas during the summer vacation returning too.

From this article on the Korea Times

"A group of Japanese students wearing masks pass through the quarantine section at Incheon International Airport, Sunday. Two Koreans and a Japanese national died of complications from influenza A (H1N1) over the weekend." (Korea Times)

Add to the mix the general lack of awareness in Korean culture about the need to cover one's nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and proper hand washing protocol combined with a lack of soap in school bathrooms . . . well, I think it's pretty safe to say that the infection numbers are going to EXPLODE in September and October--that's my guess, anyway.

Now the media blitz is beginning to take off and they're finally starting to embrace the reality that Korea will not escape/avoid having to deal with the virus.

"But doctors worry that once school starts in September, a mass infection may occur as students who have been overseas for the holidays return and raise the possibility of transmission among classmates and family members. Government data show that 50.1 percent of flu cases here involve inbound travelers, while 14.7 percent contracted the disease locally. The center also said that eight classmates at a high school in Daegu were confirmed to have contracted the virus Saturday."

I'm really surprised to read that rumors are out there (no source is given for this info, and you have to take everything the Korea Times says with a ginormous grain of salt) that schools may be closed.

"The government is considering shutting down individual schools for a certain period if an infection is confirmed among staff or students."

With the SMOE orientation coming up fast I'm imagining what the odds are that at least one person in the 500 or so teachers that will be fresh off the plane and arriving at the orientation will be an H1N1 carrier . . . I imagine that they must be pretty high but have no basis for this other than this quote, "Government data show that 50.1 percent of flu cases here involve inbound travelers, while 14.7 percent contracted the disease locally" from the KT article, and other things I've read in online news and the WHO website.

Time to start megadosing vitamin C I guess . . . though I don't think that's going to help all that much . . .

Well, what do you think? Will the goverment shut down all the schools in Korea for 10 days? I don't know how that would work because schools also function as a babysitting service for all the working Korean adults during the 9-5 work day period, and hogwans (private cram schools) take over after the kids get out of regular school from 4pm till 11pm . . . I really wonder how the economy will deal with this if the schools are shut down--not well, I'd imagine.

I really hope that foreign teachers don't become a part of whatever the primary angle is that the Korean media takes on this because the last thing we need is to be seen as the carriers of H1N1 . . . combined with the unqualified/impure discourse that has been going on for years.

If I were a hogwan foreign teacher right now I'd be banking every Korean won I am paid and saving it just in case the 'fit hits the shan' and causes a massive number of hogwans to go bankrupt and put hundreds if not thousands of foreign hogwan teachers out on the street with no job and no place to live . . . yikes.


Jacob said...

Great post, and I think you are absolutely right.

Foreigner Joy said...

my school told me to not come back after 7 days after I am back from America.

Just an extra vacation for me. They won't check up on me considering they are on vacation too.

The problem comes in whether they count is as paid sick leave or just paid leave.


You may want to compare how schools in America have been tackling this virus. They found that closing the whole school for days did no justice considering the kids would just end up going to play with each other. They found that when they discover an infected child or teacher in a school to take those individuals out for a period of 24hrs and not the whole school. This was more effective they said at containment.

In my opinion I don't think it will be a National thing but rather a local decision amongst school governments.

Also I don't think all Koreans believe they can only get it from foreigners. I think they have a pretty good awareness now that you can get it from anyone.

Jason said...

I agree that some Koreans are aware and well informed about H1N1 transmission info but after seeing how horribly misinformed the general public was about Mad Cow I stand by my opinion that if the Korean media continues its anti-foreigner discourse and anti-foreign teacher discourse that somehow foreigners will continue to be seen as disease carriers . . .

The article I quote in my post still continues to suggest that Korea has something 'different' about it and how H1N1 will effect Korea. "South Korea was considered to be relatively safe from the global pandemic that, according to the World Health Organization, has affected 177,457 people around the world." This particular line is, in my opinion, very out of place in the larger context of the article and I think it's still a latent resistance to acknowledging that Koreans are the same as 'foreigners' and how diseases impact them.

American health and disease culture is VERY different than it is in Korea. And the education system too. I don't know that comparing how America is dealing with H1N1 could provide much insight into predicting how Korea is going to act. I do, however, think you have a very good point about how individual schools will be given the authority to decide if they shut down on a school by school situation basis.

Only time will tell . .. I just hope a health and hygiene revolution takes place in Korea as a result of this.

Brian said...

I'm not sure if it was here or on another blog---maybe Roboseyo's?---that reinforced that swine flu isn't a foreigner's disease, it's a traveler's disease. I guess Korea considered itself different because it's in Asia, and not, obviously, next to the US or Mexico, the original two big hot spots. I certainly hope it didn't consider itself different because they eat kimchi.

But I don't get why they'd consider this myth of difference knowing full well how many people in Korea travel abroad for vacation and study, how many people go into Japan for any number of reasons, and though the number of tourists to Korea is relatively small, Korea hosts all kinds of international-ish events, so it really shouldn't be surprising that Korea has cases of its own.

And yes I'm sure that number will increase once school is back in session. While I don't wish swine flu on anyone---especially to make a point---I am glad to see that we've largely moved on from this being simply a foreign teacher's disease. However, like we've seen schools are asking their teachers to stay home for a week, Jeollanam-do public schools included. I'm curious if that applies to the Korean teachers as well.

Jason said...

Hi Brian,

I suspect that some Korean teachers will be told to stay home, and others will just come to school--unless the education office sends out an order to all schools saying otherwise . . .

The trainees in the six month program that went to America for a month of immersion and training came back to Korea . . . and there was no quarantine for them . . .

Also, I know some foreign instructors have come back from their vacations and have not done a self-imposed quarantine for 7 days . . .

Things are so hit and miss willy nilly all over the place about how this virus is being dealt with that I think that that is going to add to the explosion of infected numbers in September after everyone gets back from vacations and studying overseas . . .

As for the myth being dispelled about how H1N1 is transmitted, and by who, and how Koreans are not susceptible to the virus . . . the cultural 'logic' probably comes from the nationalism programming that goes on in the ed system and then later on in the media system . . . go figure.

September and October are going to be VERY interesting . ..

Brian said...

That's one of the reasons I didn't get a student visa for fall, even though I'll be studying Korean at a university (although, a student visa wouldn't make practical sense for me either). When I enrolled they were putting all teachers arriving from overseas into a week of mandatory quarantine, and I worried that they'd naturally do the same to students. The same "precautions" weren't in place for tourists.

Jason said...

I'm really curious to see how this all plays out.

I asked some individuals in the 'powers that be' at my university if they had a plan in place as to what they'd do if they had to shut down the university for a week or two--and of course heard that they weren't even considering that to be a possibility . ..

Some people are saying that this is all a matter of media-induced hysteria, and maybe it is, but if experts at the WHO say this is something to be worried about ... well, they're a group of genius-experts . .

I think with the lack of hygiene and awareness of how viruses are transmitted in the general population that Korea may be about to experience a major crisis ...

Let the criticisms ensue--but time will tell if I'm right . . and I'll eat my words if I'm wrong.

I hope I'm wrong.

Good luck with your studies.

Mr said...

Very interesting read. From what I understand here in Suwon, 1 student at my current school has tested positive for it (and did not come to school today). They did a body temperature test with all the students today and found two more who show possible symptoms...

I 110% agree with you in that, the lack of education about hygene (no soap in the bathrooms, no reliable heat dryers, no knowledge about covering one's mouth when caughing sneezing) is really going to backfire. Add that to a crowded country/school system and it's a powder keg just waiting to go KABOOM. Further, I'm teaching at a high school and these kids eat the worst possible junk food laced with chemicals and sugars (which really weaken the immune system) and they get very little sleep on top of that. Kimchi isn't going to do much to help here...

In my opinion, it's not a matter if it will happen in September or October, but rather HOW SOON it will happen. I predict the Seoul area will have it's influx of cases first (crowded area with the most people likely to travel c/o relative earning power and social pressure to go abroad to study).

I'll be starting my new job in Gwangju next week but I don't think any place will be safe here...

Chris and Rowena said...

Interesting article and comments. I was recently told by my director that the Korean government has made it policy that teachers are not permitted to teach for one week after they arrive back in Korea from an oversea holiday. Has anyone heard the same thing??? My girlfriend and I have two overseas holidays booked for September ...and I think our director now expects us to cancel them! That's a lot of won down the drain. If this policy exists, is it only for the public school system or are hagwons affected too? I work at a hagwon but also get pimped out a few times a week to a couple of elementary schools.

Jason said...

Hi Chris and Rowena,

This morning during the closing ceremonies of the orientation a person from the ed office told all 460 and change of us foreign teachers that we'd not be teaching next week, and that we'd be staying home and taking a rest, etc.

It looks like the public schools are having a policy where foreign teachers have to stay away from the school for the first 7 days after they arrive from orientation.

The funny thing about all of this is that we met our co-teachers today who picked us up to take us to our apartments. These co-teachers then return to the schools to work . . . so how keeping the foreigners away from the schools is going to help when the foreigners had close contact with people that will then be IN the schools next week is ludicrous.

Oh yeah--after seeing my apartment today I was at my school for a tour, and to meet the principal and vp today . . . go figure!

The degree of ignorance about H1N1 and how viruses are spread in general is staggering. My co-teacher asked me if H1N1 was transmitted through the air . . . oh god.

Good luck with your trip and dealing with the ignorance and hysteria.