Families’ treatment a disgrace

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Families’ treatment a disgrace


The makeshift waiting room in Jindo, left, and the evacuation center in Fukushima in May 2011.


Chae In-taek

One article caught my eye recently. It was a self-examination list of symptoms of depression in the wake of the Sewol ferry sinking. “I feel depressed daily and often feel tears well up.” Check. “I feel anxious and nervous.” Check. Most of the people living in this land will be going through the same stage of disorientation. But our feelings cannot be compared to the pain and agony of the families of passengers - mostly students - missing and killed in the man-made calamity at sea. They need all the care and support they can get to make it through this excruciating experience.

Unfortunately, everything about the government’s handling of the worst maritime accident in two decades has been dismally disappointing. Its care for the families is outrageously poor as well.

Hundreds of families and relatives of people trapped in the sunken ship have been crammed into a gymnasium in Jindo, the nearest land to the site where the Sewol, with 476 people aboard, capsized and sank on April 16. The cold floor has been their home for the past week, brutally exposing their lives to other people, reporters and TV cameras for the entire population and world to see.

How can we call ourselves a developed democratic society when we lack basic decency? Each family should have been allowed a modicum of privacy with curtains and cardboard boxes at least.

When an earthquake and tsunami wiped out the east coast area of Japan in 2011, refugees who lost their homes took shelter in public gyms, too. But the Japanese authorities established cardboard sections for each family with prints of the Japanese flag and words of encouragement.

Bureaucrats must have taken notice because then-Korean President Lee Myung-bak was photographed consoling residents at the evacuation center when he visited Fukushima in May of that year. They must have a poor memory, because they left their own people unprotected in the public gym for more than a week. They have little respect and compassion for the people.

A large TV screen was installed so the families could watch news coverage and progress at the rescue scene only after families made the demand directly to President Park Geun-hye during her visit to the site.

Can the bureaucrats do nothing without a president order?

Their insensitivity was again heightened when they played a video of an underwater scene. Families watched the tape of murky waters and foam in silence. They might well have wondered why deep-sea taping was possible only several days after the sinking. No one explained how many divers had been mobilized in the rescue operation, how bad the water and current conditions were, and what the video meant. Families had to ask themselves how diving could have taken that long and why divers did not go that deep immediately after the vessel went under.

The government may protest, but it deserves the blame for causing all the misunderstanding. Deep-sea diving is a dangerous job. When the Cheonan naval ship sank a few years back, Navy divers plunged into the sea once every day. U.S. military officials were awed because they rested for two days after diving 15 minutes. Naval Warrant Officer Han Joon-ho died after he went into the water four times a day. Authorities should have had a professional diver explain this clearly to the families.

No one would have demanded that divers risk their lives to save their children. But even as families desperately turned impatient toward the slow and lackluster progress of the rescue mission, authorities nonchalantly told them how many divers, choppers and vessels were mobilized.

In the middle of the night, families were told to present documents proving their relationship to the victims. Why couldn’t any of the civil servants think of doing the administrative work on behalf of the distraught families? Why couldn’t the government deploy public officials to meet the demands of the families at the scene? At the disaster scene, only bureaucracy and orders, not public service, existed.

I felt envious while reading an article on Japan’s response to security disasters and accidents. It cited support for the families and victims along with a coordinated command system and media coverage. We desire a government that puts people first without having to be told to do so.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 24, Page 24

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Chae In-taek

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