WHO Urges South Korea to Re-Open Schools as MERS Deaths Reach 9

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South Korea hospitals
A medical worker with a patient outside the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul. Photographer: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

The World Health Organization urged South Korea to open thousands of schools closed due to the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, which claimed two more lives and led President Park Geun Hye to cancel her U.S. trip.

“Strong consideration should be given to re-opening schools” because they haven’t been linked to the transmission of MERS in South Korea or anywhere else, the WHO said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday. More than 2,400 schools were closed Wednesday, according to the country’s health ministry.

South Korea’s MERS outbreak is the second-largest after Saudi Arabia, though the WHO hasn’t declared it to be a public health crisis of concern internationally. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index closed at the lowest in two months after the city’s health department said a woman was isolated in the hospital after developing a fever following a trip to South Korea.

In South Korea, much of the attention from officials has been on averting the potential negative impact on the economy. The MERS outbreak has come at a time when the country’s exports are shrinking, and the government is trying to avoid a repeat of the slump in consumer spending that followed the Sewol ferry sinking last year.

Park, facing pressure from lawmakers including one from her own party, postponed her U.S. visit due to start on June 14 that would have included a meeting with President Barack Obama.

“She’s more worried about the economic implications of MERS than the virus itself,” Hong Sung Gul, a professor of policy studies at Kookmin University in Seoul said by phone. “The economy faces structural difficulties and if the government botches its handling of MERS while she’s away it would seriously hurt South Korea’s global reputation.”

Financial Support

Her decision followed Finance Minister Choi Kyung Hwan’s announcement of 400 billion won ($357 million) of support for small businesses affected by the outbreak, especially those related to tourism and entertainment. The government has pledged to end the virus’s spread within this week.

“Complete control is possible now because MERS has been spreading at medical institutions and not to the general public,” Choi said at a meeting in Sejong, south of Seoul. “Having said that, I’m worried it’s making life more difficult for small businesses, as well as ordinary citizens, if the situation goes on for long and public concern increases.”

The number of new MERS cases rose by 13 to 108, with nine deaths, the country’s health ministry said in an e-mailed statement. A total of 3,439 people are in isolation, of whom 180 are in hospitals.

Hospital Infections

The latest deaths are a 62-year-old man with a history of liver cancer and a 75-year-old female with with a history of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. Both came into contact with a MERS patient in the same hospital emergency room, the health ministry said.

Authorities have said all the infections have taken place in hospitals, indicating the virus hasn’t spread into the wider community. Still, the government has faced criticism both at home and overseas for missteps in its response, in particular over its initial refusal to name the hospitals involved.

“This week is a critical period, considering the virus incubation period,” Choi said at a later televised briefing, speaking in his capacity as acting prime minister. “The situation will settle down if we manage to avoid large numbers of additional infections.”

Choi urged people to continue ordinary economic activity because the MERS virus cannot spread through the air. Tour operators in South Korea have reported cancellations including by groups from China.

Station Cleaning

Hong Kong and Macau yesterday issued warnings against unnecessary travel to South Korea, while Japan and China have said they’ve strengthened monitoring of inbound travelers to prevent the virus’s spread.

Hong Kong subway operator MTR Corp. said Wednesday it was disinfecting a subway station after a clinic located inside reported a suspected MERS case. The woman, who visited Seoul from May 23-27, is now in an isolated ward in Princess Margaret Hospital after she developed fever on June 9, Hong Kong’s health department said in an e-mailed statement.

The MERS outbreak in South Korea comes weeks after the anniversary of the Sewol ferry sinking that killed 300 people, and has drawn parallels with the government’s botched handling of that tragedy. Park’s approval rating is near an all-time low.

“She really desperately needs something momentous that’s positive to redefine her legacy, otherwise it’s Sewol,” John Delury, a political science professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said Tuesday. “This is having the opposite effect. It reminds everyone of many of the same things that didn’t go right then or are not going right now.”

Still Recovering

South Korea’s economy has yet to fully recover from the slump in sentiment caused by the outpouring of grief over the disaster. Expansion last year was 3.3 percent, compared with 4 percent projected by the Bank of Korea just a few days before the ferry went down with more than 300 people aboard.

The central bank’s most recent projection is for gross domestic product to increase 3.1 percent.

Goldman Sachs Tuesday cut its 2015 growth forecast for South Korea to 2.8 percent from 3.3 percent, partly because of the potential impact of MERS.

A combination of slumping exports and the risk of a decline in consumption from MERS is fueling bets that the Bank of Korea will on Thursday lower its benchmark interest rates from a record low.

Eleven of 18 economists and analysts surveyed by Bloomberg see the BOK easing, while ruling Saenuri party lawmaker Shim Jae Chul also called for a cut Wednesday, Yonhap Infomax reported.

The political fallout from MERS and backlash against Park may grow if infections continue to rise, said Kookmin University’s Hong.

“It’s excessive to place all blame on her for the spread of MERS,” Hong said. “Yet the final responsibility lies with her, and she has a chance to turn the situation around by making aggressive public gestures that she’s doing all she can to fight MERS.”

For more, read this QuickTake: The Virus From the Desert

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