National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Tabloids revel in South Korea's MERS misery

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Schadenfreude, a word of German derivation, is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.” A more succinct definition would be “malicious glee.”

“Malicious glee” aptly describes Yukan Fuji’s coverage of the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak in South Korea. Yukan Fuji, a nationally circulated evening tabloid published by the conservative Sankei Shimbun, has adopted a strongly adversarial tone toward Japan’s neighbor. From June 9 to 14, 5 out of 6 of its front page headlines concerned MERS, choosing to disregard (or downplay) such major domestic and foreign news as the worrisome uptick in volcanic activity, the FIFA scandal, hacking into Japan’s national pension system, the sinking of a Chinese ferry with great loss of life and the publication of teenage serial killer Seito Sakakibara’s autobiography.

In chronological order, Yukan Fuji’s headlines read: “MERS spurs ugly infighting in Seoul” (Jun. 9); “World Health Organization issues urgent warning to Park government” (June 11); “President Park totally defeated in terms of public opinion and MERS” (June 12); “Major U.S. investors successively bailing out of S. Korea due to MERS scourge” (June 13); and “First quaternary MERS infection — China’s estrangement from S. Korea rapidly increases” (June 14). The contents repeatedly harped on how the outbreak is hurting Korea’s domestic economy, and cited a poll that showed support for the government of Park Geun-hye had dropped to 33 percent, a fall of 6 percent in one week, forcing her to postpone a visit to Washington.

The Korea Herald’s English web site reported that as of noon on June 19, South Korea had 166 confirmed cases of MERS, 24 deaths and 5,930 people under quarantine. The fatality rate of the disease there, 14.5 percent, is considerably lower than the 40 percent recorded in the Middle East.

The question many Japanese are asking, and not without good cause, is: Will Japan be next? J-Cast News (June 3) was one of the first to raise the alarm after learning that two Asiana Airlines flights from Seoul to Chubu International Airport in Nagoya the previous week had not undergone cabin fumigation. Currently about 14,000 people a day travel by air between the two countries on 600 flights, to and from 25 Japanese airports.

The era of long-distance jet travel makes it infinitely easier for contagious diseases to hop halfway round the globe, and MERS, with its relatively long incubation period, is ideally suited to stymie efforts by quarantine officials at airports and other points of entry. As Shukan Bunshun (June 18) noted, “Japanese have a high awareness toward hygiene, and … (in 2003) no cases of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) were reported. But the MERS incubation period can extend from two days to two weeks. Even when thermal cameras at airports are used to check for travelers running a fever, there’s always the possibility of an infected person entering Japan during the period of latency.”

Even more worrisome, reports Shukan Post (June 26), is the possibility, however remote, that the coronavirus causing MERS will mutate into a more virulent strain.

“In the case of SARS, while we don’t know the reason, its symptoms became lighter with secondary and tertiary infections,” says pediatrician Takahiro Kiyomasu at Nara’s Yamato Takada Municipal Hospital, who adds that there was speculation that, rather than the decline in strength of the pathogen, the less severe symptoms of later SARS patients might have resulted from a reduced exposure to the virus.

“It was miraculous that Japan had no reported cases of SARS,” Kiyomasu continues. “On the other hand, for that reason, Japan gained no experience or data (from the 2003 pandemic), and I’m concerned that an outbreak of MERS could lead to a panic.”

Kiyomasu’s greatest concern would be transmission of MERS from a human patient to an animal.

“If people were to infect their pets, the pathogen could mutate into something more potent, with the pets then transmitting it back to humans. I don’t say that’s likely to happen, but the risk is always there,” he warned.

Other publications’ coverage of the MERS outbreak were pretty much in line with their standard editorial approach to the news. Shukan Jitsuwa (June 25) fretted that a MERS carrier may lurk among one or more of the young women who enter Japan on 90-day visas to work in the sex trade.

“It’s estimated that some 50,000 Korean women are working in Japan,” an unnamed tabloid reporter told Shukan Jitsuwa. “If one of them carrying MERS were to exchange a deep kiss or other close contact with a customer, it’s highly possible this could spread the infection.”

Flash (June 30) can claim credit for actual on-site reporting. After developing discomfort in his throat and a cough, its reporter (name and nationality were not specified) headed for the special section set up at Seoul University Hospital for suspected MERS cases. After having his temperature taken by a nurse and screening by a physician, he was told he had caught an ordinary cold, not MERS. “You can go to a regular clinic for treatment,” he was advised.

While it’s likely the MERS contagion will soon be contained, its political ramifications may linger. Some Koreans, reports Flash, are said to be mulling moves for a constitutional change that will shorten presidential terms of office, which are currently five years.

For those seeking a silver lining to the pandemic, Nikkan Gendai (June 16) ran a list of 23 manufacturers of sanitary products and pharmaceuticals whose share prices are likely to rise in the event of an outbreak of MERS in Japan. There’s a useful word in Japanese for such situations — yakebutori — which means profiting from the misfortunes of others.