At least, in that particular case, people are not going to insane lengths to try to avoid some kind of infection. Because, really, in South Korea it's gotten a little more than the usual brand of Korean crazy. I knew this was coming back in May when I went to Shanghai. Being that at the time I was suffering from catastrophic tonsillitis I admit to being worried about being quarantined when I hit China for having a fever. I took Tylenol on the plane and drank a lot of cold water and managed to get through Chinese customs relatively unscathed. I did may week of training, got a minor case of tonsil swelling, but was back to Korea before it got out of hand. On the way back I worried again about ending up in quarantine, but again had no fever, aside from having to fill out a detailed report about my health (have you had a fever in the last month? No, no, of course not), it was not a big deal.
Until about four days after I got home and had Korean CDC called me to ask if I was sick. I was actually sick at the time, but it was the tonsillitis again, so I said I was fine and life went on as usual. Until two days later at work when the CDC called the school office to check on my health. This was all back in May when swine flu was just starting out. And in reality I got lucky, I had a friend in China that did end up in quarantine after the guy on the plane next to him tested positive after landing in Beijing. That happened only about three days after my successful escape from Shanghai.
I put it out of my mind until the Boy returned to Korea from his summer vacation in Alaska and mentioned that at the airport they had everyone getting off the plane line up in rows to have their temperature taken. Rather than just passing through the screening cameras that test for body temperature, they were now physically testing every living body by sticking a thermometer in the ear and reading the temperature. When I left Korea for Chicago this summer I was worried about this happening to me when I hit the States, but surprisingly the U.S. seemed to be rather laissez-faire about the whole thing. I just walked into the country, did my month of teaching and returned to Korea. Granted on the return I did get ambushed at the gate by the Koreans with thermometers, and since I was still under the influence of tonsillitis I felt really uncomfortable about it, but what are you going to do?
After finally having surgery and feeling so much better about life in general I figured health was in my future and I was ready to put thinking about illness all the time behind me. However sadly it was not to be. It started around the beginning of the semester with the rumors. A number of universities in Korea were taking some very strange routes to prevent infections at schools. Some schools were refusing to let anyone into class until they had spent seven days in Korea at home in self quarantine. This seemed fairly ridiculous at first. And worse it applied mostly to foreigners, students and teachers, but not so much to Korean students.
The general myth, from May to mid-September, that was Swine Flu was a forefinger problem. Some schools and hagwons went so far as to forbid their teachers in June and July from "associating with other foreigners"*. Considering that most schools had no real control over a person's downtime this became a hot topic of foreigners associating with each other in bars and other places. It seemed like it couldn't really get worse from there, but it has.
Some schools and universities have instituted a policy of temperature testing daily before classes. This policy is directed only at foreign professors and foreign students. When I went to the Body Painting festival in Daegu sure enough there were two girls standing at the gate with a thermometer. The Koreans got their arm bands and walked on through, but my friends and I had to be tested to go in. They stuck the thermometer into the heads of two boys and then went for me and I said no. I wanted it cleaned. They wiped it off with the same piece of tissue they used on the two boys before me and I said no. Finally, one of them reach into the box pulled out the so-far unused cover and I consented, knowing that I'd probably be the only person that day since the first person to have a clean thermometer used on me.
I have a friend who teaches here mostly with adults. One of their students was a part of the Korean CDC who thinks that they way a lot of companies and businesses are handling the flu is just downright stupid. The best thing is to wash your hands every couple of hours, cough into your elbow, and otherwise live life. The constant temperature testing does little more than raise levels of hysteria while tripling the chances of a catastrophic infection of something else.
The other day one of the "class leaders" from some segment of the student body was running around sticking a thermometer into the ears of people in her "class" at random. Just in and out and in and out, no wipe, no clean, not sterilizing. That is far more likely to cause infections than to actually prevent anything. Further I found out yesterday that the school festival will be canceled because of the potential for students getting the flu. I figure my college students are much more likely to get the flu from just being college students; generally unruly, unwashed, bunch of germ bags that they are.
My special favorite, which I think shows just how silly Korea has gotten, came from the movies a few days ago. I went to see a show with a friend and just before the preview their was a Korean community service video. It begins with a Korean guy in the bathroom doing what Korean guys do in the bathroom. Aside from the urinating, he was touching his hair, blowing his nose in his hand, picking his nose, and doing disgusting things with that, and then zipping up and walking out of the bathroom. Cut from this to a Korean girl carefully laying toilet paper all over a seat which she eventually hovers over (I hate the alien space projectile hover peeing, by the way, just SIT DOWN), and then flushing and washing her hands compulsively like a doctor about to go into surgery.
Next seen she is walking out of the bathroom and up walks the urinating Korean guy with some kimbop. He breaks a piece off with his hand, puts in in her mouth, than squeezes her cheeks, rubs her face, making lovely dovey noises as they walk away hand in hand.
I laughed til I almost wet myself. At least the Koreans are starting to realize that it is not just about the cleanliness of the foreigners. Still, this whole thing is getting increasingly more annoying. It almost has me wishing for some kind of serious outbreak of something, like the first shot in the zombie apocalypse. In the meantime I continue to do my job, wash my hands, and stay away from the students who think projectile coughing is funny.
*So far at least one teacher has been fired over swine flu. Which is like the height of ridiculous. While I understand that the academy wants to have the best interest of Korean children in mind, that's just stupid.
The first case of H1N1 in Korea was actually brought over by a Korean.
So far there are just under 10,000 reported cases of swine flu, and 9 reported deaths.
For some perspective: According to the annual death report, the NSO said a total of 12,858 people, or 24.3 people for every 100,000 Koreans, took their own lives in 2008.