Confidence is keyLocal government and education authorities in seven cities in Gyeonggi closed more than 1,000 kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools this week as the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) shows no signs of easing. Seoul also shut down kindergartens and elementary schools in Gangnam and Seocho Districts amid escalating concerns after a major hospital in southern Seoul was revealed to have treated and generated a number of MERS patients. While schools are being closed, companies struggle with a wary workforce because they lack guidelines on how to cope with the outbreak.
During the influenza pandemic in 2009, the government gave specific instructions, commanding employers and supervisors to check the temperature of any employee that came into contact with a suspected patient more than twice a day. Authorities have not drawn up or released any guidelines for MERS, saying there have not been any reported cases of infections outside hospitals. But workplaces can hardly be expected to focus when the entire nation is rattled with an outbreak like this. The government must hand out corporate guidelines to cope with MERS immediately so that workplaces and industrial sites can go about their business. It must also prevent the waste of social energy from misleading information and overblown responses to the illness.
While containing MERS fears and the outbreak itself, the government also must try to fend off negative consequences for society and the economy. It must not wave off warnings that economic and consumer activities could be hurt worse than they were by the Sewol ferry crisis. Because sentiment and confidence can direct the economy, the repercussions could be big if preemptive actions are not taken early enough. The government must be able to convince the public that the disease is not airborne so that people do not fear going outside. If streets, shopping districts, cinemas, sports and amusement areas remain as empty as they were this weekend, the domestic economy could find itself in tatters.
The foreign and economy ministries, as well as overseas diplomatic and trade envoys, must also do their part to explain MERS developments in Korea accurately so that misunderstandings do not affect trade and diplomacy. But the government must first be able to convince people at home and abroad that it can combat the disease as soon as possible.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 8, Page 30