Saenuri calls for a central system to combat virus

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Saenuri calls for a central system to combat virus

Amid mounting criticism around the government’s failure to centralize a response system to handle the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), the ruling party demanded Tuesday that the Park Geun-hye administration clearly identify who was in charge of the battle to counter the virus.

“The government needs to clearly state who is playing the role of the control tower in fighting the MERS outbreak,” said Saenuri Rep. Yoo Seong-min, the party’s floor leader, alluding to an airport traffic control tower as a symbol of central authority. “Because it has come late, it is important for the government to clearly identify the chain of command.”

Yoo stressed that a central response system was crucial with Park scheduled to leave the country on Sunday to visit the United States.

Since the country’s first known MERS case was confirmed on May 20, several government entities have been created to counter the outbreak. The Park administration’s approach, however, was criticized for being confusing and inefficient.

Even Saenuri Rep. Suh Chung-won, a key ally of the president, criticized the government.

“No one is in charge of crisis management,” he said.

A senior presidential official said Monday that the president was at the top of the chain of command. Still, concerns have continued to increase over the Park government’s unorganized handling of the situation.

Yoo recommended on Tuesday that acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan’s daily government conference, which kicked off earlier in the morning, should be used as the centralized response channel and the highest decision-making body on the MERS outbreak. Choi previously said on Sunday that the Ministry of Health and Welfare would be the sole government channel tasked with countering the virus.

“It’s fortunate that Choi said he would host a daily government meeting to check on the situation,” Yoo said. “This conference should collect information, make important decisions, follow up with implementation measures, cooperate with local autonomous governments and disseminate information to the public.”

The Central MERS Management Headquarters was established last month at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, shortly after the first case was confirmed.

Originally headed by the vice minister, the health and welfare minister was named to oversee the headquarters on June 2 as the situation grew more serious.

The Government MERS Countermeasure Support Headquarters was created on June 2 upon the order of the president. It was headed by the minister of public safety and security, and eight government bodies including the Ministries of Education; Foreign Affairs; and National Defense. The National Police Agency also participated on the team.

The Blue House additionally created an emergency countermeasures team after the country saw its first death from the outbreak on June 2.

Hyun Jung-taek, the senior secretary for policy coordination, heads the team, which checks up daily on the situation and the government’s operations.

On Monday, a quick response task force was created with a group of specialists on infectious diseases on the president’s orders. The team is jointly headed by Dr. Kim Woo-joo, the director of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases, and Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Chang Ok-ju.

Park ordered that it have full authority to handle the situation, including the right to shut down hospitals.

During the cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the president once again stressed that she had given full authority to the quick response task force with civilian experts.

“They must establish a consistent cooperative relationship with the Health and Welfare Ministry to overcome this crisis,” she said.

She also ordered her cabinet to be prepared to dismiss any false information spreading on social media.

“If we have the determination, we can overcome this very tough disease,” she said. “The government will overcome this situation with the people.”

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

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