SEOUL (Reuters) - Fear in South Korea over the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has kept crowds down at baseball games, prompted churchgoers to bow instead of shake hands and led to an entire village being placed in quarantine.
“All of a sudden, I can’t leave. I can’t move. If I get out of here, I’ll be nabbed by the police or traced via my cellphone,” one resident of the cut-off village of Jangduk said by phone.
About 2,500 South Koreans who may have had contact with MERS patients are under quarantine, some in hospitals but most at home, and the government is tracking cellphones to stop people from violating the order.
One woman under quarantine was tracked to a golf course when she went missing, and was asked to go home, an official said.
The woman, a resident of Seoul’s Gangnam District, stopped answering her phone, and health officials went to her house to check where she was. When she didn’t answer the door, they called the police, who tracked her via her mobile phone to a golf course hundreds of kilometres (miles) away, an official at Gangnam Community Health Centre said.
A total of 87 people in the country have been diagnosed with MERS, and six have died, in the biggest outbreak of the virus outside Saudi Arabia. All of the infections have taken place in healthcare facilities after a man returned from a business trip to the Middle East early last month, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission.
Men in white protective clothing are guarding the entry roads to Jangduk village, 280 km (172 miles) south of Seoul in North Jeolla province, an area famous for its spicy red pepper paste.
“We are not in the middle of war, and didn’t get any advance notice,” said the Jangduk resident, who declined to be named.
The only contact the villagers have with outsiders is twice-daily visits from health officials checking their temperatures. The Ministry of Public Safety and Security said on Monday it will provide food and other necessities to the villagers.
The small agricultural settlement was placed under quarantine late on Thursday when a 72-year-old resident was diagnosed with MERS. She had fallen ill after she returned from a stay at a hospital in Pyeongtaek city that is at the centre of the outbreak.
“She got the okay from her doctor to leave the hospital on May 21 ... she just went home, because that’s where she lives,” the woman’s son told Reuters by telephone.
A county official said the entire village of 105 people had been quarantined because the woman had visited several neighbours there.
With nearly 2,000 schools closed on Monday, some mothers stayed home from work to look after their children.
Attendance at Sunday’s professional baseball games in South Korea averaged 8,693, down more than a third from the Sunday average this season of 13,376. Movie ticket sales for June 5-7 were down 35 percent from two weeks earlier, the Korean Film Council said.
Some of Seoul’s large churches cancelled bible study classes, with fewer worshippers attending Sunday services. One major church in the Gangnam district, near a hospital where the second-largest number of MERS infections occurred, advised parishioners to greet each other with a bow, not a handshake.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism sought to reassure nervous tourists by providing hotels, restaurants, shopping centres and tour buses with hand sanitisers.
Visitor numbers at Pony Valley on the resort island of Jeju were down even though its 24 camels had all “tested negative for MERS,” a representative of the tourist attraction said.
Scientists are not sure of the origin of the MERS virus, but several studies have linked it to camels, and some experts think it is being passed to humans through close physical contact with camels or through the consumption of camel meat or camel milk.
“The camels have been quarantined since June 5 and our camel trekking service hasn’t resumed yet because people are still afraid of MERS,” the person said, declining to be named.
Additional reporting by Seungyun Oh, Sohee Kim, Hooyeon Kim, Hyunyoung Yi and Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan