Symptoms of lax leadershipKorea observes Quarantine Day on May 20 to commemorate the country’s first quarantine decree issued in 1886. The regulation required every ship to be quarantined if it returned from areas where there were infectious diseases. Coincidentally, the first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was reported that day. A 68-year-old man was diagnosed with the contagious disease in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, after a lengthy business trip to the Middle East. He already had been to four clinics.
On the same day, employees of the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention were in Chungju, North Chungcheong, for sports day. The defense on the Korean shores had been vulnerable when the unfamiliar communicable disease arrived. Our ancestors would have lamented how their descendants could be more naive and careless about diseases than they were more than a century ago.
It was not just the frontline borders. Koreans were helpless on the second line of defense as well. The number of victims infected by the original patient had been limited. They were also easily traceable as they were within the hospital boundary. But the third generation spread has been an entirely different story. It is not easy to impose a standstill on human traffic as it is done to contain a livestock epidemic.
It is particularly tricky to contain a communicable disease like MERS that does not show any symptoms during its 14-day incubation period. People can roam around with no awareness that they are contagious. It is why the number of people subject to quarantine ballooned to thousands in less than half a month since the first patient was identified. If the defense line crumbles, so does the quarantine zone. It would require an all-out national effort. The health ministry cannot handle it alone. The situation demands even military force if necessary.
On June 2, when a third generation patient was first reported, President Park Geun-hye attended the opening of innovative economy center in Yeosu, South Jeolla. A prime minister has yet to be named. Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan, who is acting as the head of the cabinet, went on a trip to Europe and returned home Saturday. Hyun Jung-taek, senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, hurriedly organized a round-the-clock task force to deal with the outbreak.
But the task force hardly had any steam without a clear authoritative figure like the president or head of the cabinet. The health and education ministers talked differently about the need to close schools due to the outbreak. The Seoul city mayor and health ministry publicly clashed over the lack of transparency concerning information about the outbreak. The command center lost control after the first defense line broke down.
The outbreak did not just wipe out the quarantine line. It killed the feeble recovery in stock and real estate markets. Exports have been hit by the attack of the cheap yen forces. It is the first time exports fell in volume since the currency crisis in the late 1990s. The unwelcome arrival of MERS dampened the budding life in the local consumption market. Shopping and tourism sites are empty. Chinese tourists, who had been an economic savior, have all canceled their trips. Domestic demand is worse than it was about this time last year when the entire country was in mourning for young students who perished in the April sinking of the Sewol ferry. The U.S. Federal Reserve is poised to start increasing interest rates this year. Growth in China, Korea’s largest export market, has slowed.
Ministers responsible for economic and industry affairs appear to be preoccupied with preparing to run in the parliamentary election next year. They are squeezing in various measures to vitalize tourism, venture and start-up enterprises and youth employment in the package of economic policies for the second half to be released later in this month. Less than a year is left on the calendar until the next parliamentary election.
But how does the government expect to fit and carry out all the measures in the latter part of the term when it could not do it during the first two years President Park Geun-hye was in office? The Bank of Korea cannot decide what to do with interest rates. It is being nagged by the government to come up with a cure for heart disease, when it is obvious the troubled patient is in need of first-aid cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
The leadership faces a difficult test. But all great leaders show their true capabilities during challenging times. Crisis can always be used as an opportunity. The president must be able to demonstrate leadership to win the war against the panic and outbreak of the MERS virus. At the same time, the president, with her government and party, must do whatever is required to salvage the sinking economy. The ruling power could not have a better winning recipe for the coming elections.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 8, Page 30
*The author is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Jung Kyung-min