An incompetent government

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An incompetent government

I remember the day when Seoul’s historic Namdaemun gate caught fire in 2008. I came out at about 8:30 p.m. for supper after meeting the deadline for our first edition. As I was crossing the street in front of the City Hall, I saw a stretch of smoke over the gate.

It was shocking to see the 550-year-old structure, the country’s No. 1 National Monument, in flames. But I had no doubt the fire would soon be contained. It was still early in the evening and people were watching the blaze in shock. But on my way back to the office an hour later, I was dumfounded to see black clouds of smoke and the fire still intensely raging. Prime nighttime news broadcasters showed the gate’s wooden structure tumbling down. The image was crystallized in people’s minds.

I also remember the day when the Sewol ferry sank. I heard the news on my way to work. When I arrived at the office, half of the vessel was still above water, clearly visible. I thought it was fortunate that the accident did not occur in the middle of night and that it happened in waters not too far from shore. Rescue teams would arrive sooner or later.

During our morning meeting, we saw a headline on TV stating that everyone on the ship was safe. But our relief came too soon and we quickly found out that we had been naive. We all know the rest of the story. Korea has yet to recover from the collective guilt of being too trusting.

Now, the country is again grappling with what could be another lasting trauma. And we have realized that the government is as unreliable and incompetent as ever as it stumbles to contain the unprecedented outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Public distrust has grown even sharper than during the Sewol crisis. They believe the same government that could not save one life from a sinking ship is incapable of protecting them from an infectious disease. Their distrust in the government and skepticism about its capabilities have overwhelmed the fear over this unfamiliar infectious disease. They have learned from the Namdaemun fire and the Sewol ferry sinking that the government is incapable of protecting the land’s assets, and even its lives.

These incidents could not have been foreseen. Who could have known a man would go berserk and set fire to a national treasure? And even a mighty ship like the Titanic sank. Who would have imagined a virus communicable among camels in the desert could arrive in this part of the world?

But what matters is what authorities do afterward and how they respond to unexpected mischance. Because the government cannot sense the gravity of a situation, it cannot respond adequately or quickly. Because it is slow in making judgment, it stumbles to come up with the solution at the right moment. We need not repeat past misfortunes. The outbreak is sprawling and infection numbers are rising quickly.

Yet, authorities claim the risk of contagion is low. Most of the public knows where the first patient was treated, and yet the government insists it cannot disclose the names of the hospitals where patients have come into contact with the disease. Schools and private academies have voluntarily closed, but the government says there is no need for a shutdown.

The only decisive advice the government can come up with is to avoid coming in close contact with camels. It is an unsurprisingly ingenious response coming from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which put up a post online saying that sleeping in the open could harm the underground alleyways where the homeless take refuge.

It is not wrong. But what is more urgent than signs and warnings is quick action. In any emergency, authorities should prepare for the worst. The government is clumsy because it is quicker with words than actions.

There is no other explanation. The government is plainly and unquestionably incompetent. Some have defended the ministry, but if the health minister is incapable of handling health and welfare affairs, then there should be two ministers rather than one.

If not, the president should have taken control of the situation instead of criticizing local governments, which have been trying to control the outbreak on their own. If it had shown some kind of responsibility, the government could have avoided this outbreak of distrust that has been faster than the spread of the disease.

The public may not gain anything by lashing out at the government for being so useless. But we are too frustrated and angry with paying the price every time.

Instead, the words of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill can express our thoughts: “The government simply cannot make up their mind, or they cannot get the prime minster to make up his mind. So they go in a strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.”

JoongAng Ilbo, June 6, Page 26

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

by Lee Hoon-beom

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