In a bar in Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam district this week, music was blasting from the speakers and Harry Potter played on a giant flat-screen television; but the electronic darts board and kung fu video game stands were bereft of customers, and all but one of the tables were empty.

The barman had a simple answer for the unusual lack of business: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers).

South Korea on Friday reported three more deaths from Mers, in what has become the largest outbreak of the virus outside Saudi Arabia, with more than a dozen deaths in the past few weeks and 126 people in South Korea diagnosed.

Health officials have begun urging people to go about their normal daily activities, saying the rate of new cases was slowing, but in South Korea’s capital, the fear is still palpable.

“The number of newly confirmed cases has fallen sharply and there are little risks of the virus spreading through airborne transmissions or to communities outside hospital settings”, the health ministry said in a statement. “Therefore, we ask the people to conquer their fear and engage in day-to-day business.”

Currently, 3,680 people are under quarantine, down from 3,805. A total of 1,249 people have been released from quarantine, including 294 on Friday.

Nevertheless, all manner of public and private events – from briefings on the forthcoming World Military Games 2015 to a Japan-Korea goodwill noodle banquet – have been cancelled, while 2,400 schools remain closed.

Businesses including shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas have reported a sharp drop in sales as people shun public venues with large crowds.

In Seoul’s Insadong, a pedestrianised arts-and-craft area which is usually heaving with tourists, the streets are suddenly easy to navigate.

“Customers are down by 70 per cent, everyone’s staying home,” says a staffer at the “Dragon’s Beard” traditional confectioner. He grimaces: “I am very sad.”

More than 54,000 foreign travellers have also cancelled planned trips to South Korea so far this month, according to the Korea Tourism Board.

The industrial-port city of Pyeongtaek, southwest of Seoul, where the first cases originated, has been described as “a ghost town”. The 105-resident rural village of Janduk has been quarantined off with police barricades.

Every transmission has been traced to hospitals, where patients presenting with flu-like symptoms went for treatment.

The first case in late May, a man who contracted Mers in the Middle East, visited St Mary’s in Pyeongtaek from where it spread to 29 hospitals nationwide, including the flagship Samsung Medical Centre in Gangnam.

“There is hospital transmission but no airborne transmission of the virus, so the current chaos is caused by psychological anxiety,” Dr Choi Jun-yong of Seoul’s Severence Hospital said. “I advise people to continue their normal lives.”

President Park Geun-hye, who has postponed a planned summit next week with US President Barack Obama to deal with the crisis, has also appealed for calm.

SOURCE

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