A confused response

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A confused response

Twenty days have passed since Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) hit the country. The current situation calls for concerted action among ministries, local governments, civilians and politicians to tackle an unprecedented crisis. However, the absence of any central control system to direct and coordinate relevant parties has only deepened the confusion. Yoo Seong-min, the floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, expressed concern about the way the government has been dealing with MERS. “No matter how late it is, the government must make clear some order,” he said.

President Park Geun-hye yesterday presided over a cabinet meeting to discuss the virus, the first of its kind since the outbreak on May 20. But we couldn’t find any substance there. The role demanded from the president now is not to give rudimentary guidelines but to delegate actual responsibility to her cabinet members after appointing a central authority.

On Monday, Park said she would launch a rapid response team comprised of experts and invest them with full authority to effectively control the spread of infections. Though it sounds plausible, this could actually only deepen confusion, as several counteraction teams and headquarters have already been established.

For instance, the Central MERS Countermeasures Headquarters was launched on May 20 within the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, followed by the MERS Rapid Countermeasures Team at the Blue House and the pan-governmental MERS Countermeasures Support Headquarters and the Comprehensive Joint Civilian-Government Reaction Task Force under the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

So there are now five organizations with similar roles. Such an inefficient network makes it hard for government employees to report to appropriate persons in the hierarchy. What’s happening on the frontline also seems confused - evidenced by orders by local governments to “actively monitor” suspected patients, which contradict orders by community health centers to carry out “self-imposed isolation.”

The president must establish a central command, hopefully led by acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan. Blue House Spokesman Min Kyung-wook drew a red line by saying that the presidential office serves as the de facto control, but that’s not a reliable solution. At the peak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, then-Prime Minister Goh Kun took control - the most effective solution.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 10, Page 30

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