[FOUNTAIN]Treating the sick wherever they areIn 1520, Hernan Cortes destroyed the Aztec Empire with only 600 troops. In 1531, Francisco Pizarro defeated the Inca Empire with 168 soldiers. Behind the easy victories was a mysterious disease: smallpox, brought in by the Spanish.
Epidemics like the smallpox outbreak among South America’s indigenous people first appeared about 10,000 years ago when human beings started to live in groups. The outbreak of a mysterious disease can be horrifying. In the 14th century, more than 25 million people died of bubonic plague. In the early 20th century, more than 20 million people died from the Spanish flu.
China is often the epicenter of the 21st century’s mysterious diseases: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in 2003, the bird flu outbreaks in 2004 and a swine-borne disease, known to have been caused by streptococcus, which broke out this year.
Why do these diseases crop up? The first reason is unsanitary conditions. But the larger reason is the imperfect medical system. About 90 percent of the nation’s 800 million peasants and 45 percent of its city dwellers have no medical insurance. They can’t afford it.
A billion people are vulnerable to a mysterious disease, so the issue of barefoot doctors (chijiao yisheng) is rising again. These are rural health workers whose profession dates from the Cultural Revolution, when they worked with a medicine case on one shoulder, pants rolled up and walking barefoot.
“Did Hua Tuo, the first surgeon in China, ever study in a school? Chinese doctors serve only 15 percent of the Chinese people, the members of the Communist Party.” With these two criticisms from Mao Zedong, the barefoot doctors were born.
They were charlatans, “doctors” with only three months of education. In Shen Fan’s book “Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard,” one 17-year-old barefoot doctor, who had never even butchered a chicken before, amputates a 3-year-old’s arm. However, Mao said that the barefoot doctors were better than psychics.
There was one good thing about the barefoot doctors: They offered health care to rural areas at a time when medical services had been available only in the cities. These doctors lacked medical knowledge, but they were ready to serve in the remote and secluded parts of China.
The Korean government decided on Tuesday to operate a freelancer system for doctors. A noted doctor in Seoul can now examine and treat patients in the provinces. Let’s hope that we’ll see a “Korean barefoot doctor” that visits every nook and cranny of the country as a service, not for the sake of money.
by You Sang-cheol
The writer is a deputy international news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.