Seoul. Hwang Jeong-rye went to hospital in Seoul on June 9 for a back problem and has been stuck there ever since – locked in along with 78 others as South Korea scrambles to control an outbreak of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.
“It is a prison without bars … It hurts me because she wants to see my face even at a distance,” said Jeong Yeon-seok, fighting back tears after catching the eye of his 72-year-old mother on the sixth floor of the Mediheal Hospital.
Thousands of South Koreans have been put under quarantine, including those inside two hospitals that are under a two-week lockdown – meaning no one can enter or leave.
MERS has infected 165 people in South Korea, with 23 fatalities, in its largest outbreak outside Saudi Arabia. All of the infections known to have occurred in South Korea took place in health care facilities.
Worryingly for the likes of Jeong and his mother, most of those to die in the outbreak have been elderly or had existing ailments.
Each day at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., Mediheal staff guarded by police officers collect items such as instant coffee, fruit and cigarettes left for patients by relatives or friends at a back door to the hospital.
Jeong, 45, delivered two bags of home-made leaf-mustard kimchi, shampoo and towels for his mother.
Mediheal was locked down by officials on June 11, after a patient there was diagnosed with MERS. The infected patient has been moved to another hospital, and none of those remaining at Mediheal has tested positive for the virus.
“My son comes here every day, seeing me from outside the hospital, and calls me several times. It is just so sad, it is making me cry,” Hwang, who lives across the street from the Mediheal Hospital, told Reuters by telephone.
“It is boring and baffling because we are locked up here six people in our room, so we are killing time by talking with each other or watching TV.”
Mediheal Hospital said the precaution was necessary, and that staff were trying as much as possible to help patients who might otherwise have been helped by family members.
In addition to the two hospitals under lockdown, another has been completely shut and the prestigious Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, where the most infections have occurred, has stopped taking new patients.
About 6,700 people are in quarantine, some in hospitals but most at home, including an entire village of 105 people.
At Changwon SK Hospital, which was sealed off with 54 people inside after a MERS patient visited, officials brought in exercise bikes to help patients stay fit and cope with boredom.
A patient, surnamed Jeong, at the hospital in the southern part of the country, said a sense of camaraderie had built among the patients.
“We are watching each other if anyone coughs. I heard someone at another floor had coughs but was tested negative. But we have some kind of unity as well and tell each other to keep clean,” said the man, who was admitted to hospital after breaking his finger.
“I want to go outside and get some fresh air.”
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