Blue House defends its response to virus

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Blue House defends its response to virus

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President Park Geun-hye leads a meeting Monday at the Central Government Complex in Seoul to assess countermeasures against the MERS outbreak. [NEWSIS]

The Park Geun-hye administration is facing mounting criticism over its handling of the rapid spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), with health authorities waiting days before disclosing the names of the hospitals affected by the outbreak despite pledging to provide information in a timely and transparent manner.

“In the emergency meeting on [Wednesday], President Park ordered that information related to MERS should be made public as much as possible to prevent public insecurity,” presidential spokesperson Min Kyung-wook said on Monday. “Yesterday’s announcement came on her orders.”

On Sunday, the government broke the long-held silence that it claimed was necessary to prevent fear among the public and disclosed the names of 24 hospitals that have treated MERS patients. The announcement came only after local governments and the media threatened to make public the list of medical facilities first.

The disclosure was made weeks after the country’s first known MERS case was confirmed on May 20, after a 68-year-old man tested positive following his return from a business trip to the Middle East. Since then, the disease’s spread has been rapid.

Min on Monday attempted to defend the government for taking four days to make public the hospital names after Park’s order last week.

“The president said we need to make the announcement, and the government probably took time to prepare for it,” Min said. “You can assume that time was needed to prepare for the announcement.”

Even after Park presided over the emergency meeting on Wednesday, top government officials were reluctant to reveal the hospital names.

During a media briefing about the meeting, Hyun Jung-taek, the senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, and other officials and experts who attended the discussion denied a plan to announce the list.

“Please understand that there was a process to coordinate their understanding about the situation immediately after the president’s order,” Min said.

He also tried to shield the president from increasing criticism that the outbreak had become more serious because of the government’s decision to withhold information.

“She made the same order when she visited the National Medical Center [on Friday], in addition to the Wednesday meeting.”

“Looking back on any incident, there will always be shortcomings,” Min said. “Right now, our priority is concentrating our efforts to resolve this crisis as soon as possible.”

Later in the day, Park visited the government situation room for the MERS outbreak, located at the government complex in Gwanghwamun, and urged authorities to provide information on the patients and hospitals.

She also ordered that full authority be given to experts at the quarantine headquarters to effectively and quickly counter the changing situation.

“A perfect understanding of the infection route, completely cutting the infection chain and preventing additional transmissions are key,” she said. “But the situation continues to change and we need to make quick decisions to reflect those changes. That’s why a quick reaction team with full authority should be formed with experts.”

She also stressed the importance of cooperation between the central and local governments to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Until recently, the Park administration had been at odds with local governments, including the Seoul Metropolitan Government, over the disclosure of information.

In addition to its fight against the outbreak, the Blue House was having a publicity battle.

Public rage towards the presidential office grew following reports that the Blue House was screening visitors using thermometers and a body-heat detector at the same time that the government was declining to unveil the names of the affected hospitals and repeatedly asserting that there was no need to be fearful of the situation.

At the press briefing, Min said visitors were monitored based on standard security protocols. A heat detector and thermometers were used Thursday to screen visitors and journalists ahead of the summit between Park and Senegalese President Macky Sall.

Asked if the outbreak might mean that Park would have to cancel her trip to the United States, scheduled for Sunday, Min said: “There is no change we need to announce about the itinerary.”

In the aftermath of the outbreak, the approval ratings for the president and the ruling Saenuri Party have gone down.

A Real Meter poll conducted from June 1 to Friday that surveyed 2,500 voters showed that Park’s approval rating decreased 4.4 percentage points, to 40.3 percent.

Of those polled, 53.3 percent said Park was not properly doing her job.

Support for the ruling party also dropped by 3.2 percentage points, to 38.3 percent.

Among the next possible presidential contenders, Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung was supported by 23.3 percent, down 0.9 percentage point.

Contrarily, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon enjoyed a 0.4 percent increase, recording a 13.8 percent support rate and ranking third. Moon Jae-in, the chairman of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, came in second at 18.3 percent.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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