Blue House was distracted when virus arrived

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Blue House was distracted when virus arrived

The Park Geun-hye administration was so consumed with its battle with the National Assembly over reform of the civil service pension system that it dropped the ball on combating an outbreak of the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), some government officials said Thursday.

The main opposition party was quick to criticize the Park government’s slow response and poor countermeasures.

“It took two weeks for the government to have an emergency meeting to address the situation after the first case was confirmed,” said Rep. Choo Mi-ae of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Choo is the leader of the NPAD’s special committee on the MERS outbreak.

“But the meeting was nothing more than a gab fest and it was far too short to lessen the people’s distrust in the government.”

The country’s first case was confirmed on May 20, and President Park hosted an emergency meeting to address the deadly outbreak exactly two weeks later, on June 3. On Tuesday, Hyun Jung-taek, senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, hosted a meeting and decided to operate an around-the-clock task force to deal with the outbreak.

It appeared the cabinet meeting chaired by President Park on May 26 did not discuss the spread of MERS.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first MERS patient in Korea on May 20 and his wife was confirmed as the second patient on the same day. The third case was confirmed on May 21 and two more on May 26.

At the routine cabinet meeting on May 26, Park gave an opening address focused on a series of political issues including her push to overhaul the money-losing civil service pension system.

The press release by the Blue House later in the day had no mention of the MERS outbreak or the government’s plan to contain it.

According to government sources, Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo only contacted the Prime Minister’s Office on June 1 and requested a ministerial meeting to address the deadly outbreak. But the Park government has no prime minister since Lee Wan-koo stepped down from the post in April after a payoff scandal. Deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Choi Kyung-hwan, has assumed the role of acting prime minister.

The Prime Minister’s Office summoned relevant ministers for an emergency meeting on the morning of June 2. By that time, the country’s confirmed cases had reached 25 and two people were already dead.

“Because the health authorities failed to tackle the situation at an early stage, the public can question the government’s quarantine ability and that can lead to a bigger crisis of distrust,” Choi said at the meeting.

When the country’s first MERS case confirmation came on May 20, Health and Welfare Minister Moon was deep in the struggle to reform the civil service pension system.

On May 7, opposition lawmakers had threatened to introduce a motion in the National Assembly to dismiss Moon.

Moon had criticized the ruling and opposition parties’ agreement to link reform of the debt-ridden civil servants’ pension system with a plan to change the national pension system. Moon called the deal “a robbery by one generation against another,” and the opposition demanded Moon’s resignation.

The National Assembly’s Committee on Health and Welfare hosted a meeting on May 26 to be briefed by Moon about the MERS outbreak, but the lawmakers and Moon focused more on their battle. At the meeting, Moon finally apologized for his criticism.

While the health minister was swamped with politics, Minister for Government Policy Coordination Choo Kyung-ho decided to host a meeting on May 28 to address the outbreak, shortly after hosting a routine vice-ministerial meeting.

Vice Health and Welfare Minister Chang Ok-ju, however, skipped the meeting because she wanted to go to the National Assembly to address the pension reform. Yang Byung-kook, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attended the conference hosted by Choo and proposed that the vice minister should be in charge of battling the outbreak from now on.

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