There’s no hero in the MERS battle

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There’s no hero in the MERS battle

When Chinese President Xi Jinping declared an anti-corruption campaign to catch both tigers and flies, the Chinese people had little hope. Every Chinese leader promised to eradicate graft, but it only expanded. But Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was clearly different. One key move that contributed to the campaign’s success was the decision to appoint the resolute and stubborn Wang Qishan as the secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to oversee the initiative.

Some 10 years ago, Wang was fighting neither tigers nor flies. His enemy was SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. In April 2003, a month after the outbreak started, he was appointed as the interim mayor of Beijing. His predecessor was sacked for covering up and mismanaging the epidemic, and Wang was left to manage the capital, which had the potential to turn into a ghost town. It was a critical moment that could have undermined the foundation of the fledgling Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership. In retrospect, the replacement was incredibly timely.

The records from the press conferences that can still be found online demonstrate Wang’s determination. When a reporter asked him to confirm rumors that Beijing’s airport had been shut down, he responded that he was not afraid of the 10,000 people in quarantine, but feared a possible catastrophe. He said the authorities were taking 9,999 measures and asked the public to trust the government, assuring them that SARS could be controlled.

No one would have believed him if he was glib, but Wang won the public trust by disclosing all the facts. He mobilized the military and police to isolate those exposed to the virus, and personally took the lead in the battle against SARS. The already slender official lost more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds), but with proven devotion and competence, this SARS hero continued a successful public career as vice premier, then going on to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

It may be too early to conclude, but the worst seems to be over here in the battle against Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). If the outbreak is successfully cleared, then it’s all thanks to the medical staff who compassionately cared for the patients in isolation despite the risk of infection.

The government, on the other hand, has been a great disappointment. Not one official has led by example or communicated with the public effectively. Our leaders have been feeble and hurried, the government’s measures absurd. It’s easy to see from online posts how foreign tourists might feel annoyed over the authority’s plan to cover the medical and travel costs for those infected with MERS during their stay in Korea.

It’s pathetic that this plan was approved in the first place. The government failed to read the situation or public sentiment. Newly appointed Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn belatedly declared that he would take the responsibility of handling the outbreak, and while it’s not his fault, his pledge sounded empty. We will win the war against this virus. However, there is no hero among our officials.

The author is the Beijing correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 23, Page 30


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