A Monster Movie Nailed South Korea’s MERS Problem

By Jeremy Hsu | June 30, 2015 10:52 am
A scene from "The Host." Credit: Showbox Entertainment

A scene from “The Host.” Credit: Showbox Entertainment

Anyone trying to understand South Korea’s struggle with the MERS virus outbreak should take a look at a Korean monster movie called “The Host” from 2006. “The Host” doesn’t actually predict South Korea’s outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome almost a decade ahead of time. But the film does paint a familiar picture of South Korean society’s crisis in confidence stemming from the outbreak of a terrifying and somewhat mysterious disease. It also captures a strong sense of mistrust in government efforts to control the disease that mirrors the public’s current distrust of the government’s ability to control the MERS outbreak.

Long before his blockbuster film adaptation of the dystopian story “Snowpiercer,” South Korean director Bong Joon-ho envisioned a film about a giant mutant monster living in the Han River. The monster of “The Host” eventually emerges to terrorize Seoul, the South Korean capital, and creates an even bigger crisis when the U.S. military and South Korean government declare the monster to be the host of a mysterious virus. That premise allows the film to create a rich stew of political satire where references to Korean history, politics and culture frequently bubble up in the midst of the chaos. But the heart of the film centers upon a misfit family consisting of a middle-aged father, his two adult sons and daughter, and a granddaughter whose abduction by the monster drives the film’s main tension.

“The Host” mercilessly caricatures the government’s confused response to the supposed virus in the film. Most figures of authority, including police officers, the military, and disease control workers, typically appear officious, apathetic and lacking in empathy. In one scene, a health official wearing a yellow biohazard suit bullies the grieving families of the monster’s initial victims while deflecting their questions about why they’re being put into quarantine. When a main character admits that he’s potentially been exposed to the virus, workers in biohazard suits pounce on him and bundle both him and the family off to the hospital. The main characters end up at crowded hospital where they’re overseen by tired-looking physicians and nurses and allowed to sit around without proper medical precautions.

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A hospital scene from “The Host.” Credit: Showbox Entertainment

The film also shows ordinary citizens all wearing the masks and watching the latest vague news reports to suggest a society under siege from an invisible threat. One particular scene shows a coughing mask wearer remove his mask to hock up some phlegm — basically negating the point of wearing the mask in the first place — as nearby pedestrians eye him in fear and disgust. A few main characters of “The Host” eventually begin to wonder about the nature of the virus as the government’s approach to the crisis only feeds the sense of uncertainty.

Mirroring the MERS Crisis

Director Bong Joon-ho uses “The Host” to reference public scares concerning previous outbreaks of diseases such as SARS and Avian Flu in Asian countries. But his film’s cynicism toward the government and its depiction of a bumbling official response to the fictional crisis seems to mirror the problems that have led to recent public skepticism of the South Korean government’s handling of the MERS outbreak.

Just as in the film, South Korea’s struggles with MERS stem in part from misinformation or a confusing lack of information about disease. In the real-life case of MERS, the government initially refused to name hospitals where the first patient had visited and spread the disease among fellow patients. That led many South Koreans to begin avoiding hospitals entirely, which eventually prompted the government to begin naming specific hospitals which had MERS cases, according to Bloomberg News.

The government also shut down thousands of schools, despite evidence that spread of MERS has been limited to hospital settings. Health experts from both South Korea and the World Health Organization urged that the government reopen schools after a number of South Korean physicians had already described the school closures as nonsensical, according to the Associated Press. The schools reopened several weeks later as the government sought a return to normal with rates of new MERS cases slowing, Reuters reported.

Four weeks after the MERS crisis began, a South Korean poll found that almost 90 percent of respondents negatively rated the information on MERS released by the government as being “not helpful” or “not enough,” according to the Korea Times. About 70 percent of respondents also said that they did not trust the government’s policy on stopping the spread of MERS.

Masking the Problem

Even general recommendations on the use of face masks have been somewhat muddled during the MERS outbreak. I saw some of that uncertainty while attending the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul from June 8-12. During the conference, Martin Enserink, a contributing editor for Science Magazine, asked a panel of South Korean medical researchers about why the government was recommending people wear face masks when there was a lack of evidence that they could protect healthy people against MERS. (On the other hand, face masks worn by sick people can help prevent the spread of certain diseases.)

A scene from "The Host" shows everyone wearing surgical masks to protect against a mysterious virus. Credit: Showbox Entertainment

A scene from “The Host” shows everyone wearing surgical masks to protect against a mysterious virus. Credit: Showbox Entertainment

It’s normal for people in South Korea and other Asian countries to wear surgical face masks as a public courtesy when they suffer from more common illnesses such colds. But current research suggests that the surgical masks probably won’t do much by themselves to protect healthy wearers against MERS in particular. Some medical experts recommend that health care workers around MERS patients wear respirator masks; a level of protection that represents a step beyond surgical masks. At best, experts remain divided over what counts as effective face protection for MERS, as seen in a debate among medical experts in Singapore in 2014:

There remains no international or regional consensus on the recommendations for respiratory precautions for MERS-CoV among the various infection control professionals. Infection control practitioners at the debate cited their experiences during the SARS epidemic and highlighted the use of a mixture of different masks in Hong Kong and Singapore institutions, with different outcomes. Some healthcare workers exposed to SARS with minimal precautions did not contract the disease, while there were anecdotal reports of those who used the N95 [respirator] mask and contracted SARS. The reality is that we may never be able to determine the best protective gear to wear for SARS, MERS-CoV or other emerging infections, as it is practically impossible to conduct any randomised controlled trials.

In response to the question at the World Conference of Science Journalists, the panel of South Korean medical experts said that having more people wearing face masks in general reduced the stigma for mask wearers who are actually ill. That led to some head-scratching about some journalists who wondered if such a recommendation might simply fuel public uncertainty.

The Economic Price

The confusion and fear surrounding South Korea’s response to the MERS outbreak has had consequences beyond the relative handful of patients who have fallen ill or died. Many news publications observed that the usual throngs of pedestrians in Seoul’s streets have been staying home from their usual shopping and social activities. The Korea Times reported that sales at retail stores had fallen alongside attendance for typically popular professional baseball games. Tens of thousands of tourists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have canceled their planned trips to South Korea because of the MERS outbreak, according to the New York Times.

The most popular shopping neighborhoods had noticeably thin crowds while I was visiting Seoul. While visiting Namsan Tower, I chatted with an elderly guide who mentioned how the usual crowds of Chinese tourists who typically swarm through the city landmark had almost vanished. A baseball stadium hosting a game between two Seoul-based teams, the LG Twins and Doosan Bears, had mostly empty outfield bleachers despite the presence of diehard fans in the cheering section and a large crowd in the infield bleachers.

Attendance at professional baseball games has dropped during South Korea's MERS outbreak, but very few people who attended games bothered to wear face masks. Credit: Jeremy Hsu

Attendance at professional baseball games has dropped during South Korea’s MERS outbreak, but very few people who attended games bothered to wear face masks. Credit: Jeremy Hsu

Contrary to the overly alarmist picture painted by some news stories, I saw relatively few people wearing face masks in the subways, streets or even at crowded public venues such as baseball stadiums and movie theaters. But then again, I suspected many of the people who were truly worried had simply chosen to stay home.

The overall economic blow has forced the South Korean government to revise its estimated growth of gross domestic product (GDP) downward and unveil a $13 billion stimulus package to help counteract the effect of MERS, according to a roundup of news by The DiplomatMeanwhile, the World Health Organization continues to track the number of cases and deaths in the current outbreak.

A Problem of Trust

The political fallout from the MERS outbreak may also have lasting implications for the administration of Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president. Park had already been fighting to regain public trust since the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking killed 304 people, including hundreds of teens. The MERS crisis led to public approval ratings of just 29 percent in a Gallup poll released on June 19 — the lowest of Park’s administration since she became president in Feb. 2013 — according to The Korea Times

Se-Woong Koo, editor-in-chief of Korea Expose, summed up current critiques of the government in an op-ed for the New York Times:

Government ineptitude has laid bare some uncomfortable truths. South Korea, as seen from the outside, is indeed that rare country that transitioned from poverty and dictatorship to affluence and democracy in a miraculously short time. Yet it is viewed by many people here as a crony capitalist state run by corrupt elites who have monopolized power and the national economy, fostering government incompetence and popular distrust of the state.

A similar sense of distrust in the state in “The Host” shows how the problem of public trust concerning medical matters of life and death is nothing new in South Korea. Sometimes it may lurk just out of sight beneath the surface in times of relative calm, like a certain fictional river monster. But when a new, mysterious threat emerges, distrust of the government can easily flare up once more if officials don’t take steps to communicate in a clear and transparent manner with the public. It’s a challenge not just for South Korea, but for all governments; having a system and process in place that can confidently and efficiently navigate the health crises of the 21st century.

A scene from "The Host" shows military troops cordoning off the Han River area where the monster lives. Credit: Showbox Entertainment

A scene from “The Host” shows military troops cordoning off the Han River area where the monster lives. Credit: Showbox Entertainment

SIDE NOTE:

“The Host” became the highest-grossing film at the time in South Korea when it was released in 2006, and remains the third-highest grossing film there. More recently, South Korean films have struggled at the local box office against Hollywood competitors such as “Jurassic World,” the fourth film in the popular dinosaur park franchise. The fear and uncertainty surrounding the MERS outbreak haven’t helped; movie theater attendance in South Korea plummeted starting in late May until it reached an all-time low during the weekend of June 5.

The falling theater attendance prompted local studios to delay release of several highly-anticipated Korean films. That had the unintended effect of clearing the way for Hollywood blockbusters such as “San Andreas” and “Jurassic World” to rule the South Korean box office, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Since June 5, South Korean movie attendance has come roaring back with the help of “Jurassic World.” (I took the opportunity to watch “Jurassic World” in a crowded 4DX theater on Saturday, June 13.)

I can understand why moviegoers in South Korea and the rest of the world have flocked to see “Jurassic World.” It’s a fun action movie featuring an impressive menagerie of prehistoric monsters, despite the lack of intellectual curiosity and scientific premise that propelled the original “Jurassic Park” film. But for people who want to watch a more unusual monster movie with some political bite and humor, check out “The Host.”

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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