When I required hospitalisation a few years ago, I chose to stay in a two-bed ward. Walking into the hospital room, however, I immediately regretted my choice.

I was greeted by a merry party of 4-5 people having sundae – no, not the ice cream variety but the stuffed pig intestine kind. They were a friendly lot and knowledgeable too, asking me what I was in for and then freely dispensing various folk remedies. Two of the visitors stayed overnight to “take care” of the patient. Well, there we were, all four of us crammed in a room meant for two, the air stuffy and smelling of pig intestines.

Things got worse on the weekend. The whole tribe – including young kids – came for the day and shared food and drinks by the bedside while the patient, unable to take solids yet, watched. Rest and recuperation eluded me. I was thankful she was not the religious kind – I would have been subjected to daily hymn singing and prayers by visiting church members. I heard them every day in other rooms. Of greater concern, however, was that the endless stream of visitors might have spread germs from the outside since I was susceptible to infections.

I confess, I am guilty of ordering fried chicken on Christmas Eve. As the world outside was celebrating, I found myself staring out the window feeling depressed. Then, voila, I happened upon a sticker on a cabinet with the phone number of a chicken place. In less than 30 minutes, a deliveryman wearing a motorcycle helmet knocked on my door, carrying a bag of aromatic fried chicken. I knew that Korea was the land of food delivery, but to a hospital room! I was in awe. In hindsight, this was a risky behaviour: Who knows how long that chicken may have been lying around before being refried and brought to me?

Although I carefully discarded the leftovers, I am sure I contributed to the cockroach that startled me in the shower the next morning. A report several years ago had highlighted cockroach infestation problem at hospitals and I am sure visitors bringing in food from outside plays no small part in the problem.

Each time I have my blood drawn, I wince not at the pain but at the sight of the gloveless staff. Medical staff in many other countries put on a pair of new latex gloves for each patient to protect the patient and themselves. In Korea, both the patients and the staff appear nonchalant about their unprotected encounters.

Since Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is what prompted this column, I must end with an observation about my experience with another highly contagious disease, H1N1, more ominously known as novel swine-origin influenza A.

Suspecting that I had something more serious than a mere cold, I went to a university hospital. I waited nearly 30 minutes in the waiting area along with other patients, before I saw a doctor. Like me, none of the patients were wearing masks although this was at the height of H1N1 scare. To this day, I am remorseful that I did not wear a mask – my excuse is I didn’t have a cough – and mortified I could have passed the virus on to the recovering lung cancer patient a few seats away.

I did not see the gloveless and maskless doctor wash his hands before or after examining me, an alarming fact since I had told him I suspected I had H1N1.

I was tested and told to wait in the waiting area, again with other patients. After about 30 minutes, a nurse came running to me with a mask and said, “Put on the mask. You have the new flu.” Even at this major teaching hospital where patients with serious conditions are treated, preventing the spread of virus was an afterthought.

Back home, I kept to myself in my room. I was conflicted – I should be helping out in the kitchen – but told myself that this was better than infecting my extended family. After a few days of Tamiflu and bed rest I recovered and no one else got sick, but I am sure I earned the ire of those who could not understand the reason for my isolation.

Koreans dislike people who raise a fuss. Some members of my family viewed the self-quarantine as a fuss. Perhaps, hospitals think requiring their staff to wash their hands and put on gloves and masks is a fuss. Families who visit their sick ones at the hospital think that strict enforcement of visiting hours is an inconvenience, an unnecessary fuss.

But we should fuss. Looking at how MERS has spread primarily in hospitals I wonder if the hospitals were not partly responsible for spreading the disease. If hospitals were fussy perhaps MERS may not have spread so widely and quickly. Had the authorities responded to the first MERS case with overzealousness, the outbreak would have been better contained. It is better to err on the side of caution.

In the early days of MERS, the authorities warned against eating camel meat or coming into contact with camels. But guess what! President Park Geun-hye was served camel meat in Qatar and the UAE during his March Middle East tour. MERS has a 40 per cent mortality rate in the Middle East since 2012: Didn’t anyone in medical staff warn against eating camel meat?

This is the sort of government that we have been dealt – blissfully unaware of or worse yet oblivious to even well-known dangers and risks. This is why we should fuss – because we should not rely solely on the government to take care of us.

The Korea Herald/ANN