TOKYO — Having decided to delay her planned trip to the United States so that she could deal with the MERS outbreak, South Korean President Park Geun-hye faced some criticism Wednesday that she might be increasing the sense of panic.
But Park decided she had to stay home as new cases of the disease, Middle East respiratory syndrome, continue to emerge despite government predictions that the worst is over.
The move is “designed to take care of public safety, including putting a quick end to MERS,” Kim Sung-woo, Park’s spokesman, told reporters, according to the Yonhap News Agency. Park has delayed the trip as “the people’s safety is the top priority,” and she will try to ease public concern at home, Kim said.
Park was due to leave Sunday for the United States, where she was to hold meetings with President Obama on Tuesday and visit Houston.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said that “President Obama looks forward to welcoming President Park to the White House at a mutually convenient time.”
Two more people have died from the virus in South Korea, making a total of nine dead, health officials reported. They said 14 more cases were confirmed Thursday, pushing the number of infections to 122. Medical experts are cautioning that this outbreak is far from a pandemic, but South Koreans are alarmed.
Park’s decision comes amid vociferous criticism of her government’s handling of the outbreak. The government also faced fire for its response to the Sewol ferry disaster. Park was further chastised for embarking on a trip to South America on the first anniversary of the disaster.
But some critics questioned the message she was sending by staying home. She had previously told people not to “overreact” and said that everyone should “cooperate to ensure that economic activities will not be weakened.”
A Realmeter poll published shortly before the announcement found that 53 percent thought Park should delay the trip, while 39 percent said she should continue with it.
Fearful of contagion, South Koreans have been avoiding enclosed public places such as subway cars, shopping centers and movie theaters in droves, sparking concerns about the impact on the country's economy, which is already struggling.
“If this atmosphere continues for more than a month, the domestic economy is expected to enter a slump as it did after the ferry disaster last year,” the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, said in an editorial.
Almost 2,500 schools have closed to try to minimize chances of infection.
A World Health Organization team that arrived in Seoul on Monday released its first recommendations, together with South Korea’s Health Ministry, on Wednesday, proposing that schools be reopened because they have not been linked to transmission of MERS in South Korea or in the Middle Eastern countries where it originated.
All of the transmissions have happened at hospitals, leading Choi Kyung-hwan, acting prime minister, to ask people not to visit family or friends in hospitals.
But he also warned people against unnecessary panic. “The government asks that people do not hold exaggerated fears or concerns over MERS, and that they do not act based on such groundless fears, such as reducing their spending or avoiding visits to areas that have reported confirmed cases of MERS,” he said.