The Wuhan coronavirus is spreading uncontrollably in China. China's National Hygiene Health Commission announced Wednesday that 5,974 patients are diagnosed with Wuhan pneumonia and 132 died from it in 31 provinces. The numbers already surpassed the number of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) patients in 2003 (5,327). The Chinese government has not been able to stop the virus as secondary and tertiary infections are on the rise. To make matters worse, Chinese students studying in Korea will return to Korea after having a winter recess and spring festival in China. Against this backdrop, Korea’s disease control is on high emergency alert.
There are some 70,000 Chinese students studying in Korean universities. Around half of them study in Seoul. University students are astir because they are bound to have frequent contacts with Chinese students in lecture rooms, cafeterias and dormitories. Dongguk University, Sungkyunkwan University, Sejong University and Sookmyung Women’s University’s Korean Language Institute temporarily halted all classes. Universities outside of Seoul including Dongseo University, Pai Chai University, Wonkwang University, Jeonbuk National University and Cheongju University either requested to delay entry of Chinese students or halted exchange programs with Chinese universities.
The Ministry of Education held an emergency meeting on Wednesday with staff of major universities and ordered them to operate emergency management based on infectious disease prevention manual. Students and teaching staff who travelled to Hebei province were advised to stay home for two weeks and asked to not attend university events such as graduation and entrance ceremonies.
The Korean government should relieve anxiety of citizens through thorough quarantine on those who enter the country rather than leaving the matter to universities. It should relieve the issue of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kit shortage to quickly sort patients diagnosed with the disease, inform Chinese visitors with disease prevention rules and make epidemiological investigation available anytime. Quick and systematic administrative responses of the government and local governments are a key to win in a war with the infectious diseases. The best way to deal with this crisis is to create broad and dense networks through the public health system and staff. It is important to remember that infectious diseases in the past were contained through traditional disease control such as epidemiological surveys, isolation and quarantine, not through state-of-the-art medical technology.
Banning the entry of Chinese visitors should be the last resort. Korea would have more losses than gains politically, diplomatically, economically and medically. It becomes harder to control infectious diseases if Chinese visitors illegally enter Korea. Of course, irrational hatred towards the Chinese should not spread. The government should respond meticulously to the disease and citizens should observe hygiene rules and not lose mature consciousness. The best way to deal with this crisis is to respond to it with our own social immune system against infectious diseases.