Over the past few days, we have been monitoring, with growing alarm, two tragic stories happening elsewhere in our Asian neighborhood.
In South Korea, an ‘outbreak’ of the potentially deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has all but brought the country to a standstill. MERS, which is described by United Nations health officials as “an emerging disease that remains poorly understood,” is thought to be a deadlier but less contagious cousin of the feared Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people when it first appeared in Asia in 2003.
In China, a ferry with more than 450 people on board capsized in the Yangtze River on Monday night after being struck by a freak storm, described by the ship’s surviving officers as a “cyclone.” Chinese meteorologists believe it may have been a small tornado. As of now, fewer than 20 of the ship’s passengers and crew have been rescued, and hope for the more than 400 still missing has all but evaporated; most are believed to be trapped inside the sunken ferry’s overturned hull.
The MERS ‘outbreak’ – the term preferred by South Korean and UN health officials, although a more accurate description would be ‘epidemic’ – has caused widespread alarm, particularly in and around Seoul. The virus first appeared there on May 20, traced to a single elderly businessman returning from a trip to the Persian Gulf region; incredibly, he was later allowed to travel to China, potentially spreading the illness, for which there is no vaccine and no known cure.
So far, more than 30 confirmed cases of MERS have appeared in Korea, causing at least two deaths and forcing authorities to quarantine nearly 1,500 people; new cases are appearing “on a daily basis.” More than 200 public schools have been closed and dozens of events canceled as the authorities, who have already apologized for not responding to the crisis quickly enough, struggle to keep the infection from spreading.
Monday’s ferry disaster in China was eerily similar to the sinking of the Princess of the Stars here in the Philippines in 2008. Within sight of shore in well-traveled waters, the ferry capsized and sank with very little warning; the few survivors describe it as going down in less than a minute, trapping almost everyone aboard. Although China is no stranger to shipping accidents due to poorly maintained vessels or cutting corners on safety measures, this does not seem to be the case this time; the survivors also said that the boat was not overloaded, was apparently in good condition, and that life jackets were provided for all passengers.
With intense attention recently directed to the potential for a deadly earthquake in Metro Manila – attention that is not at all inappropriate but seemed a bit suspect in its timing and hysterical tone – perhaps some thought should be given to the other risks facing the people of the Philippines. The twin disasters in China and South Korea are stark reminders that even in places that are well managed and have more than enough resources to respond to an emergency, circumstances can quickly spiral out of control.
With all due respect to the thousands of people – staffers of government agencies, policemen and firemen, medical personnel, rescue volunteers from the Red Cross and other organizations, and community leaders – who do yeoman’s work in response to disasters large and small, the Philippines is not the measure of Korea or even China when it comes to crisis management.
The time to acknowledge that and take steps to improve our capabilities is now – not when the disaster is already unfolding.