The president must come forwardKorea is grappling with the largest-ever outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outside of the Middle East as the death toll rises to four and confirmed infection cases hit 50. Over 30 were infected in Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital south of Seoul that treated the first patient who had travelled to the Middle East. A large hospital in Seoul and the air force also reported infections. A patient in her 70s who had shared the same room with the first patient died. People are jittery and clad in masks if they must go outside. Reports say thousands are being quarantined and rumors are running wild about the potential danger of the vaccine-less virus and the scope of the outbreak.
Instead of doing everything to contain the situation and ease public anxiety, the government appears to be busier fighting with the Seoul mayor for holding a separate press conference criticizing the former for a lack of transparency, after he claimed a doctor infected with the disease attended an event in southern Seoul that drew over 1,500 people. Regardless of whether Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s revelation was appropriate or not, the government or ruling party is hardly in a position to criticize him. The same goes for the Health Ministry that blundered at every move.
Park should have talked to the central government before making the announcement in the middle of the night. Declaring the city’s plan to quarantine 1,565 people who had been in the same room with the doctor could confuse the systems in place to deal with crises. But Park’s decision to force quarantine to prevent the virus spreading is decisively better than the health minister’s laid-back attitude of relying on people’s good judgment.
President Park Geun-hye criticized local governments for causing confusion in the government’s war against the outbreak. But she is wrong. The government should create an emergency headquarters together with the entire cabinet, local government heads, law enforcement commanders, physician representatives and virus experts. The current system led by the health minister cannot be relied on. This is a war for both the central and local governments. The government should have disclosed the name of the hospital that contained the first patient and subsequent infections much earlier. The disease could not have spread if it had acted swiftly from the beginning. The government must disclose the names of the clinics and hospitals that had infections. It also must establish a system so that physicians can check up on patients. Covering things up will only contribute to panic and distrust.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 6, Page 26