By the Numbers: Fear Over MERS Impacts South Korean Economy

The data driving Asia

South Korean president Park Geun-hye postponed her scheduled trip to the United States on June 10 to supervise containment of an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The spread of MERS in South Korea started with a 68-year-old man who was diagnosed with the virus on May 20 after his business trip to the Middle East. South Korea now has the second highest number of infections after Saudi Arabia with a total of 172 infections and 27 deaths as of June 22, 2015.

Although the number of new cases has been in decline, MERS has impacted South Korea’s economy, the fourth-largest in Asia, in unprecedented terms. We explore consumer and government responses that have been unique to the MERS outbreak by the numbers.


The estimated percentage of growth in online sales of surgical masks in the first week of June. As the public tries to minimize exposure to the virus, sales of masks and other personal hygiene products such as hand sanitizer and soap have skyrocketed in South Korea.

Citizens with protective masks queue at Incheon international airport  outside Seoul, South Korea. Source: CiaoHo's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Citizens with protective masks queue at Incheon international airport outside Seoul, South Korea. Source: CiaoHo’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

$64.1 million

The amount that South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism will provide in soft loans for 17 tourism sectors impacted by the MERS outbreak. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, tourist arrivals have dropped by 24.6 percent in the first 11 days of June with more than 124,000 tourists cancelling their trips to South Korea. The drop of tourists has largely been attributed to the fear of MERS especially from neighboring countries like China and Hong Kong.


The percentage upsurge in online purchases in South Korea in the first week of June with escalating concerns over MERS that has kept consumers at home. In contrast, there has been a sharp drop in sales at department stores, retail outlets, and restaurants by 16.5 percent, 3.4 percent, and 38.6 percent respectively over the same period.


MERS 24-hour hotline number set up by the South Korean government in an effort to reduce fear and offer assistance to the public concerned about the virus. On June 15, the government expanded its service to 19 languages to also serve foreign visitors.


The record low base interest rate announced during the Bank of Korea’s monthly policy meeting on June 11 after a decision to cut the base interest rate by 25 basis points. The committee cited the effects of MERS as a contributor to its base rate decision.


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