South Korea said on Tuesday that its outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was finally over. There hasn’t been a new case in over three weeks, and the last person was lifted from quarantine on Monday. “After weighing various circumstances, medical personnel and the government judge that the people can now be free from worry,” said Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. This isn’t a P.R. spin either; the World Health Organization (WHO) also issued a statement on Tuesday calling the outbreak under control, crediting South Korea’s public health measures.
MERS was first reported in South Korea on May 20, and it ultimately killed 36 people, sickened nearly 200, and put over 16,000 people into quarantine as the government tried to limit the spread of the disease. The outbreak also caused major economic damage, largely from psychological fears. Shopping centers, supermarkets, and other large public venues emptied out as residents stayed in rather than expose themselves to infection risks. The same fears caused tourist arrivals to plummet — by more than 40% in June and nearly 60% in the first 15 days of July, compared to a year earlier, according to government data. In fact, Korean Air suspended or reduced operations on routes to Japan and China in June and July, and rival airline Asiana suspended or cut service routes to Japan, China, and several destinations in Southeast Asia.
As MERS strangled the country’s second-quarter GDP growth (just 0.3% compared to 0.8% in the first quarter), emergency economic remedies were enacted. The central bank cut interest rates twice since the outbreak began, and the government unveiled a $19 billion fiscal stimulus plan, much of which was designed to support companies hurt by the MERS crisis.
Now, thankfully, things are returning to normal. Consumer and business spending is forecast to pick up again, although exports are still low and this year’s overall growth will likely be lower than pre-MERS estimates. Seven countries that had issued travel warnings against going to South Korea have rescinded them, and South Korean airlines will restore normal operations in early August.
It must be noted, however, that the government has taken a lot of criticism in some of its handling of the outbreak. It took nine days before the first MERS patient was diagnosed with the virus in South Korea, allowing transmission to others and complicating the effort to ensure an effective quarantine, reported MarketWatch. And for more than two weeks, the government refused to make public the names of hospitals that had treated MERS patients because it was concerned about a widespread panic.
That said, things could have been much worse — especially compared to the botched response to Ebola in West Africa, which has killed 11,261 and is not yet entirely extinguished. Many West Africans, suspicious of belated and inefficient government efforts to contain Ebola, fled in terror. By contrast, the WHO commended South Korea’s efforts in broadly tracing patients’ contacts, isolating all contacts and suspected cases, and strengthening infection prevention.
The MERS outbreak was painful but mercifully short, and the country’s economy will recover before too long. But perhaps most importantly, South Korea is now practiced and prepared to contain any future infectious disease outbreaks.