The quieter side of the MERS outbreak

Opinion

Anna Park for Korea Exposé
Streets around a hagwon district in Jukcheon, Gyeonggi Province, are all but deserted as MERS forces schools and even private classes to go on a temporary hiatus. (Anna Park for Korea Exposé)

It has been over two weeks since MERS landed in South Korea, and an unusual quiet has descended on our town in Gyeonggi-do, the province which encircles Seoul.

In this area popular with young families looking for a less urban lifestyle and (slightly) cleaner air, there is the strange sense that the summer holiday has come early.

Located not far from a number of the hospitals where MERS has been found, many of the schools in the vicinity have closed, along with the numerous academies (hagwon) which densely populate this town.

Gone are the hundreds of yellow shuttle buses which usually transport the local children to and from taekwondo, English, music and every other subject imaginable; instead small gangs of kids can be seen wandering the streets eating ice-cream or kicking a soccer ball around otherwise deserted school playing fields.

Like a great many other parents in Seoul and the surrounding cities, I have been told that my children’s kindergarten and school will not be reopening this week, in a bid to contain the outbreak.

Concern about the spread of the virus is visible in the higher than usual presence of face masks and national text message alerts about hand-washing. I have also been advised by my son’s kindergarten not to take him to the supermarket or crowded places.

Yet the unusual sound of children’s laughter wafting in from the playground below our apartment at 2pm on a weekday suggests that the containment measures may be having an unexpected side effect: many of South Korea’s children are perhaps enjoying a much-needed break.

A previous article on Korea Expose has described the dark side of Korea’s high-achieving education industry, revealing the extreme lengths many parents will go to in order to give their child the edge in getting into the best possible universities. Surveys in recent years have found that South Korea’s children are among the world’s unhappiest, such are the demands upon their time and energy in academic pursuits.

In South Korea there is no shortage of opportunities to send children as young as two to day care, kindergarten, English academies and sports clubs. It is the norm to see tiny kids lined up outside the never-ending rows of apartment buildings each morning and afternoon waiting to be whisked away on academy shuttle buses. I have friends with nine-year-olds in math academies for 16 hours a week. Our local city hall recently hosted a fair devoted to “in-utero education” – a whole industry of products and services aimed at starting the process of nurturing the child’s intellect and personality before they have even seen the light of day.

Usually the cafes in my area fill with clusters of mothers from mid-morning to late afternoon, where lively discussions ensue about the best options for feeding the minds and bodies of their kids. Online and in the widely-used Kakao Talk messaging app an almost constant conversation flows between members of various “mothers groups” oriented around school classes and clubs. It’s little wonder then that the pressure to subscribe to every extra-curricular opportunity available is felt so keenly by South Korean parents, occupying a considerable portion of monthly household expenditure.

Even as a parent seeking to avoid over-enrolling my children in these extra-curricular activities, I find the wide array of education-oriented activities for them to fill the hours between school and dinner time immensely attractive. The closure of my children’s usual institutions this week has sent me into a frenzy of home-based activity generation unlike anything I’ve experienced in a long time.

As a result of the unusual measures imposed by the government’s MERS containment efforts, today my fellow mothers are not gathered on the street corners laden with bags of books and sports equipment as they escort their offspring around, a half-finished iced americano in one hand and a smart phone in the other. It really does feel like we’re in the midst of a month of Sundays. I don’t doubt that homework and music practice probably still continue behind closed doors, but the frantic to-and-fro of the typical family school day is notably absent.

Although the measures are an inconvenience for the majority and I know working parents are particularly burdened, I can’t help feeling that the involuntary pause has not been a bad thing for affected kids to have some of the pressure off for a short while.

Yet even as I write this final sentence, a ping signals the arrival of a message to my phone notifying me that taekwondo classes resume this afternoon – at the request of parents. And so life goes on.