Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Swine Flu Comes To Seoul...

Swine flu has made it's way to Korea... I suppose it was inevitable. Unfortunately, it came by means of newly arrived English teachers from the US. I am already anticipating the suspicious stares I will start receiving once the word spreads. The word has been spreading fast among English teachers since one of the Americans quarantined has started a blog to tell the world about his experience.

I found this blog yesterday. Also, yesterday one of my co-workers also received a phone call from the Korean Ministry of Health (?) to ask if he has experienced any flu-like symptoms, since he was recently abroad. Abroad being Japan.

Today I opened my email to find an e-mail from a girl working in a hagwon in Seoul who's hagwon has now "forbidden" it's teachers from visiting places with high concentrations of foreigners and have highly recommended that they stay in within their dong.

Hi Jo-Anna,
I teach at (school name redacted). I'm writing in in regards to the swine flu quarantine. Today, our director told us that we can not go to places like Itaewon or Hongdae since there is a high concentration of foreigners there or they will fire us. They have also strongly urged us not leave our area (JangAn-Dong). They said it was a decision made by the (school name redacted) Directors. I was just curious if your school has told you the same.
Thanks for your help!

Well, the answer to that is... as of yet... no. Later I received this response from her:

We're specifically banned from Hongdae and Itaewon and strongly discouraged to leave our neighborhood. We were also told to stay away from festivals or areas with lots of foreigners. We had planned a trip to Sokcho next weekend for one of the teacher's birthday's and we were told we couldn't go there either. To my knowledge, there are very few foreigners in Sokcho.

This is sort of absurdity is just the sort of thing most of us have come to expect here in Korea...

Today I got home from work to read an article about the matter in the JoongAng Daily, the article reads as follows:

Foreign English teachers epicenter of new flu cases
May 26, 2009

The number of confirmed influenza A(H1N1) infections in Korea jumped to 22 over the weekend after the nation’s health authorities discovered that a group of 15 English teachers recruited from abroad by a private language institute in Seoul have caught the virus.

This is the first group to contract the disease in Korea. Until now, the handful of domestic cases involved travelers either returning or transiting through the country.

As a result, the Education Ministry yesterday ordered every education office to provide information on the number of foreign teachers who entered Korea after May 11 and report by 5 p.m. if anyone is currently showing flu symptoms. The ministry also made it mandatory for teachers who have just come from Mexico, the epicenter of the flu outbreak, and the United States to not start work until after seven days of arrival. Those affected include teachers at private language institutes as well as those who teach at public elementary, middle and high schools and universities

As of Saturday, the number of confirmed domestic infections totaled 10, including six teachers from the language institute. On Sunday, health officials confirmed that another 11 patients - including eight foreigners from the language institute and three Korean children from New York - had caught the new strain of flu. One more infection from the institute, a 24-year-old American male, was confirmed yesterday, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A 28-year-old female who departed from New York and arrived at Incheon International Airport yesterday morning via Japan was classified as a “presumed patient” and was under further testing as of yesterday afternoon. She and the 18 newly confirmed patients were hospitalized.

Chungdahm Learning, a Kosdaq-listed firm that runs two private English-language franchises, recently recruited some 70 new teachers from eight countries including the United States and Canada.

The new recruits stayed at the same residence in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, during a training period from May 16 to 22. They were supposed to be dispatched to the company’s branches nationwide after the training.

The company, which serves 60,000 elementary, middle and high school students, said in a regulatory filing yesterday that it temporarily shut down its branches yesterday and will keep them closed until June 2.

A spokesman for Chungdahm Learning said the institute did all it could, claiming it checked the temperatures of the teachers and sent them to local public health centers for further checkups.

But the disease control center, which operates under the Health Ministry, found that the company continued the training sessions as recently as last Friday even though some teachers have started showing symptoms of the flu. Those teachers also hung out in public spots each day after the sessions.

“It seems the institute didn’t have any idea how serious the situation was,” Jun Byung-yool, head of the center, said in a press briefing. “If the institute knew the United States is one of the countries with the flu outbreak, it should have taken every necessary preventive measure with the teachers.” Jun said he is considering mandating temporary suspension of private language institutes where teachers test were found positive for the new influenza.

The first domestic outbreak of the latest strain of flu occurred on May 2. Infections hit three but stayed at that number from May 7 until May 19, when health authorities found another case.

By Seo Ji-eun [spring@joongang.co.kr]

I'm just curious if anyone else's hagwon has mentioned anything like this one woman's school has? Is this going to hit all our hagwons soon???

UPDATE 5/28/09: Today my school suggested to us that we "try to avoid" Hongdae and catching Swine Flu in general. Fortunately, we were not told that if we went there we'd be fired, or anything of that sort. Surprisingly, nothing was mentioned about Itaewon, which has a much higher concentration of foreigners than Hongdae.


  1. I am korean, my co-worker saw my photo on facebook. I was with foreigners, most of them are american. And she said, "are you ok with so many foreigners like that??"

    I laughed a lot, And I have not felt that i am in more dangerous situation if i am with foreigners.
    BUT I think, recently, some koreans are quite afraid of contacting foreigners...

    Eat a lot of Kimchi and garlic,
    someone said it can protect you from infection.
    believe it, or not..

    with garlic, keep cross of Jesus with you, it might help you.. who knows..

  2. I can't go back home, as we can't get a replacement teacher in time, and my boss loaths the idea of having me under house arrest for ten days (not the seven from the article). Basically, they are afraid I'm going to kill all the children once I go back to the disease infested streets of suburban Illinois. Parents have been calling in to make sure none of Waeguks give the disease to their children.