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Dirty Foreigners Brought Swine Flu to South Korea

Xenophobic hysteria just got a whole lot worse on the Korean peninsula.

South Korea has an unfortunate history of mass hysteria and severe paranoia, a result of gross national contempt for the world beyond its borders. Perhaps this is understandable for a nation so frequently abused by others and troubled by the outside world.

In spite of their attempts at ‘globalization’ and the ‘openness’ that has helped lift South Korea from the third world to the first, many Koreans still maintain a fear and loathing of anything non-Korean.

It says foreigners are unqualified and dangerous to let into your home

Image from Wandering Seoul

In recent years we’ve seen mass protests and violence any time a foreign country is perceived to have interfered in Korea’s business. Anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiments run high and even the most trivial of sparks can cause a humiliating explosion of popular racism. National pride and outright xenophobia run together to create a frighteningly – and dangerously – paranoid country.

So when Swine Flu broken out in Mexico back at the start of 2009, Korea reacted in unsurprising fashion – first by labeling it Mexican Flu, and then by denying it could be contracted by Korean people.

This is an old pattern here. Koreans like to believe their perceived racial superiority insulates them from the diseases and problems of the outside world. They believe their mighty national dish – kimchi – protects them from SARS, AIDS, and even homosexuality…

So naturally Swine Flu was perceived as something merely in the domain of the nasty outside world, and not to be worried about.

However, a certain level of logic and reason prevailed quickly enough and soon people became aware that Swine Flu could be passed onto Koreans. But they didn’t worry too much. The government recommended people eat more kimchi and not travel to dirty foreign countries, or associate with expats.

Suddenly Koreans were aware of Swine Flu and they knew it was in their country. But they weren’t too scared… Somehow everyone had the same idea – the only people in Korea who had the virus were foreigners.

It’s important to remember that this is a nation that has yet to implement any law prohibiting racism or any form of discrimination against non-Korean nationals. It is a nation frequently chastised by the United Nations and Amnesty International for its vicious treatment of anyone who doesn’t look Korean.

Dirty Foreigners Infecting Koreans With Swine Flu

So when it was decided that only foreigners had Swine Flu and that they were the ones who could pass it onto Koreans, certain measures had to be taken.

Soon non-Koreans were quarantined and subjected to “laws” that didn’t exist, and no one outside of Korea was meant to know. In fact, very few people inside Korea were meant to know. The whole thing was a big secret, perpetrated mostly by business owners.

But the trouble with oppression, racism and intimidation in this generation of Twitter, Blogger and Facebook is that keeping secrets is tough. I heard rumours online about foreigners being locked up and subjected to travel bans against their will. Later these rumours were confirmed by half the people I knew working around Korea. Their schools were implementing ‘secret’ policies to appease the parents, whom had become obsessed with the notion that foreigners would infect their children.

Schools began installing heat sensors and demanding their foreigners be checked daily for the Swine Flu. They were made to scrub their classrooms, wear masks in class and told that by no means could they associate with other non-Korean people.

It should be noted that no Korean teachers at these schools were ever required to jump through the same hoops as the foreigners, just as they aren’t required to submit HIV tests or criminal history checks.

Only a handful of foreign teachers contracted Swine Flu, and in doing so they broke their contracts and earned themselves unemployment and, consequently, deportation.

How paranoid can you get?

From Wandering Seoul

Taking a look around any hagwon-heavy area of a Korean city would have at one stage given a Korean-speaking non-Korean person a good laugh… Almost every school had a big sign outside, proclaiming:

OUR FOREIGNERS ARE FLUFREE!

Of course, that didn’t stop subway trains full of people emptying when a foreigner set foot inside, or people from shouting Swine Flu! Swine Flu! on the street, whilst pointing at the only foreigner in sight. And it didn’t stop Samsung from making an advert that depicts all white people as pigs, running around a city as the mighty Koreans strut about without a care in the world…

But then reality dawned and Korea woke up to the fact that Koreans, just like the rest of us, are human beings, and as such are susceptible to viruses. And, in turn, that awareness didn’t stop the country from going into a panic meltdown.

As soon as it became evident that Koreans were in danger of dying from this no-longer-foreign virus, South Korea all but shutdown. The government instructed people to avoid gathering in groups, and banned all festivals and celebrations involving more than one thousand people.

Schools have been shut down periodically, due to low attendance and caution by the government. Parents are too afraid to send the children outside, and the education industry is suffering badly. Consequently, many schools hide Swine Flu cases, gagging parents of inflicted children to keep attendance steady, and causing the virus to spread faster.

But it’s not all bad. Sales of soap and hand sanitizer went through the roof in a country where washing your hands is really something that just doesn’t happen. Foreigners have rejoiced in the availability of soap in bathrooms around the country, whereas previous they had to simply rinse or go Korean. Many foreign bloggers even thank Swine Flu for making Korea a cleaner place to live.

Public campaigns have gained momentum in attacking other disease-spreading habits that have disgusted visitors to Korea for a long time – including spitting indoors and coughing directly into the face of another person.

In the past week the number Swine Flu cases in Korea has almost doubled and the government is talking about shutting down all schools for a short period. Foreign teachers are beginning to wonder whether they will keep their jobs or be cast out of the country en masse. The education industry is worth billions, but many schools simply can’t afford to close their doors.

Another concern is whether matters will improve for immigrants in Korea when the Swine Flu pandemic eventually blows away… Foreigners in Korea, like so many other parts of the world, are perfect scapegoats. Will they be forgiven for the treasonous offense of bringing Swine Flu to Korea?

David Wills

David Wills is the editor of Beatdom magazine, literary journal devoted to the Beat Generation.