Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
June 8, 2015

What's Familiar and Different about the First Scenes of S. Korea's MERS Outbreak

Given the seriousness of the containment effort and the not-insignificant number of people who have been diagnosed, there are plenty photos circulating on the newswire (1, 2) about the South KoreanĀ MERS outbreak. So why post this one?

We’re familiar with people en masse wearing masks in public, especially in Asia, trying to ward off air pollution in China, say. We’ve seen plenty of photos, from West Africa or else Fukushima, of people in white plastic suits and masks setting up inspection or quarantine tents around town. Because the MERS story is playing out (and attracting plenty of media attention) in Seoul, however, a large urban and relatively modern city, this threat is suddenly all-too-easy to visualize in the west.

It’s one thing to consider a photo set in Tienanmen Square of people dealing with a chronic and familiar environmental threat. It’s also easy to buffer oneself from a photo when communicable diseases are causing people to bleed out in the dusty streets of Sierra Leone. In the case above, however, the photo being so generic and familiar at the same time, it’s a lot easier to imagine how a virus could clear out the subway.

(photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP. caption: A passenger wears a mask as a precaution against the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, virus on a subway train in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, June 7, 2015. A fifth person in South Korea has died of the MERS virus, as the government announced Sunday it was strengthening measures to stem the spread of the disease and public fear.)

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