Events, dear president

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Events, dear president

Harold Macmillan, Britain’s prime minister during my boyhood (1957-63), was once asked what he most feared. In his old-school patrician style, he responded: “Events, dear boy. Events.”

Actually, this quote is unsourced; it may even be apocryphal. But it has endured, for it conveys a vital truth. In politics and life, we strive to plan ahead; we want and need to know what is coming. Yet time and again, leaders and the rest of us get blindsided. Something unexpected rears from nowhere to blow us off course or even sink us.

President Park Geun-hye is a case in point. She must feel unlucky twice over. Last year, soon after she launched a major program of reforms in February, the Sewol ferry went down in April. Park’s “474” policy package was all but forgotten, as that dreadful tragedy weighed on South Korea’s economy, politics and society for months. Indeed, its legacy haunts us still.

And now, MERS. Who could possibly have foreseen the state South Korea finds itself in today? Thanks to one unlucky or irresponsible traveler, a new disease from far away is spreading and causing alarm. The panic is arguably overdone. But as a sociologist W.I. Thomas said in 1928: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Aspects of the MERS crisis eerily replicate the Sewol. Though the events are quite different, in both cases underreaction by the authorities prompted overreaction by some citizens.

Economic behavior is a case in point. Last year it was grief, this time it is fear, but either way people are staying home instead of going out and spending. This paper had a striking photo of Busan’s Haeundae beach: normally packed, but now almost deserted despite the June heat.

Such abstinence is a double whammy for restaurants, shops and entertainment. Hit hard last year by the Sewol, they are suffering a second time. Spending in department stores is down 16.5 percent, while visits to cinemas, amusement parks, museums and the like have plummeted.

The authorities have swung into action. On June 11, the Bank of Korea (BoK) cut its base rate to 1.5 percent. Choi Kyung-hwan, finance minister and acting premier, quickly announced a 400 billion won ($360 million) aid package for the worst hit sectors.

Choi also urged citizens to “continue your daily lives as usual,” like taking weekend trips. He is surely right. If I were in Korea now, should I be afraid?

The 14 people who have died of MERS were already old and ill. And all 145 confirmed cases contracted the disease in hospitals, or in one case an ambulance: not on the street or beach, or in a cinema or school. Public places and spaces are still safe. So why cower at home?

And as another article in this paper rightly asked: “Why all the masks?” A photo of a wedding party in Seoul all wearing masks has gone viral - no pun intended - globally. Only later did it emerge that it was a joke. The upshot is millions of people worldwide think South Korea has a serious problem or that Koreans are weird - maybe both.

That is sad. And the hit that leisure industries are taking right now is no joke at all. So come on, Koreans. You don’t lack sense or courage. Stop panicking and heed Choi’s urging. Be good Keynesians: Go out and spend! Your patriotic duty demands it.

Politics is affected, too. The president canceled a visit to the United States. Was that the right decision? Turning the MERS tide is surely a matter for medical professionals. Frankly, what difference does it make if Park and her Cabinet put on yellow jackets, as if playing at being paramedics?

Yet people expect leaders to lead. Much criticized for her response to the Sewol, Park no doubt feared similar flak had she headed to Washington. But she is under attack anyway. The New York Times fired two barrels: faulting the government for mishandling the epidemic and the president for looking weak and aloof. This, too, mirrors the ferry disaster.

What next? Much hinges on how swiftly MERS can be contained. Right now, authorities are struggling to stop its spread, which is not good. But at the risk of getting eggs thrown on my face, this crisis may turn out to be just a nine days’ wonder.

As with the Sewol, there will be lessons about health and public safety. Already, the World Health Organization and others have identified some. They include more transparency and changing current practices, such as crowded emergency rooms and visiting multiple hospitals.

Multiple regulatory failings made the Sewol an accident waiting to happen. Can we say the same for MERS? That would be unfair. This outbreak could have happened anywhere. I doubt whether any other country, my own included, would necessarily have coped any better.

Will there be a long-term political impact? Even with the Sewol, the opposition’s strenuous and persistent efforts to pin the blame on the government have had scant success. Park was put on the defensive, but the Saenuri Party has mostly kept winning elections - partly because the opposition camp is itself in such disarray. I suspect it will be the same story after MERS.

Yet that still leaves the president in trouble. No one could have seen it coming, but this is just one crisis too many. Even if MERS is swiftly beaten, 2015 is almost halfway over - as is Park’s term of office. Loss of momentum is the real problem. A clear run to focus on the economy eluded her in 2014, and now 2015 is going the same way. Events, dear lady. Darned events.

*The author is an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the United Kingdom.

by Aidan Foster-Carter

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