South Koreans defy MERS quarantine, visit Philippines


Posted at Jun 08 2015 07:22 PM | Updated as of Jun 09 2015 07:40 AM

SEOUL - Fear in South Korea over the MERS virus has halved crowds at baseball games and led to an entire village to be quarantined, even though authorities say there is no imminent risk of the virus spreading to the general population.

Men in white protective clothing guard the entry roads leading up to the village in Sunchang County, North Jeolla province - an area famous for its spicy red pepper paste.

The small agricultural settlement was placed under quarantine when a 72-year-old woman returned from a hospital appointment in Pyeongtaek, the epicentre of the outbreak in Korea.

Quarantine officials in the same country tracked down a couple, both doctors, who visited the Philippines for a weekend holiday despite being under quarantine after a MERS patient was found at the hospital department the husband worked in.

The wife was ordered to use a mask outdoors, and the husband was asked to stay home according to officials at the Sunchang-gun Health Centre and County Hospital, where the husband was based.

South Korea now has the second highest number of infections in the world of MERS after Saudi Arabia, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Just 12,301 spectators watched Saturday's baseball game between the LG Twins and SK Wyverns in Seoul, - a 43% decrease on the previous week's numbers at the Jamsil Baseball Stadium, which also saw its smallest crowd of the season last Friday, according to official data.

Some Korean moviegoers have also opted to stay at home. Korean cinemas sold 35 percent fewer tickets in the weeks following the outbreak, according to the Korean Film Council.

South Korea's tourism industry has suffered from a significant drop in tourist numbers as concern over the spread of MERS has grown overseas.

Singapore postponed or cancelled all school trips to the country and Malaysia advised its nationals to avoid South Korea. As of June 4, 20,600 people had cancelled planned trips to South Korea, according to the Korea Tourism Organisation - a 75% increase on the previous day's figures.

Analysis from Barclays Bank said that at worst the financial impact of the outbreak on South Korean tourism could cost as much as two billion dollars, the bulk of which will affect tourism-related industries.

June 1 to 6 sales in South Korea's three largest department stores and three largest discount store chains fell between 5 percent to 12 percent year-on-year, according to the companies.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has sought to reassure nervous tourists by providing hotels, restaurants, shopping centres and tour buses with hand sanitisers, the ministry said in a statement.

A representative of Pony Valley, a tourist attraction on the resort island of Jeju said tourist numbers were down even though their camels had all "tested negative for MERS".

Scientists are not sure of the origin of the virus, but several studies have linked it to camels and some experts think it is being passed to humans through close physical contact or through the consumption of camel meat or camel milk.