Brought low by a virus

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Brought low by a virus

The rich are health-conscious. But money can only buy you medicine, it can’t buy you health. Illness, like the sun, falls equally on all. An infectious disease can be the most merciless. It does not avoid a person because of his riches, rank or fame. That is why diseases are dreaded even by the most powerful and wealthy.

Real estate tycoon Donald Trump admitted that he doesn’t like shaking people’s hands because he is terrified of catching diseases from others. Legendary pop star Michael Jackson was said to have covered himself with masks and gloves because of a phobia towards germs and infection. In May, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates raised awareness of deadly epidemics. He cited the Spanish Flu that killed between 20 million and 40 million people, more than World War I. What’s most frightening, Gates warned, is that we still don’t know where the Spanish Flu came from. It was only called Spanish Flu because Spain was the first to report it.

Considering the enormous amount of human travel these days, a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Flu could kill 33 million - equivalent to the entire population of Canada - around the world in just 250 days. Since blocking borders is out of the question in today’s world, we must find other ways to fight and eradicate contagious diseases. Diseases are avoidable. They do not survive in clean environments. The only way to prevent them is to make our environment as clean as possible. It isn’t merely a matter of keeping individuals, homes and workplaces clean. In today’s borderless world, the clean campaign must become an everyday practice for everyone on this planet.

Rich individuals and nations have devoted themselves to battling infectious diseases. The campaign’s torchbearer is Gates. He has pledged $1.5 billion to eradicate infectious diseases. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $4.9 million to SK Chemical to finance the development and clinical trials of a new typhoid vaccine for infants under two years old. Gates is a well-known philanthropist who has been championing “creative capitalism,” urging corporations to be more socially responsible and to use their profits to help the poor around the world. Donations to fight diseases are also a form of creative employment of capital. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $100 million to fund projects in Ebola-stricken regions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg provided $25 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help fight the spread of Ebola.

We hear no such pledges from large Korean companies or rich Koreans. Companies are willing to invest in lucrative biological or pharmaceutical projects, but are stingy with donations and charity activities to fight diseases. Diseases are studied from a business perspective but not as a common danger from which people and the society at large must be defended against. Instead they pledge money to charities and make donations to schools and scholarship programs that make for better PR.

Samsung is the country’s biggest corporate name. It also has been investing eagerly in medical industries. But it too has been negligent in the field of infectious diseases. They don’t guarantee profitable returns. As the country’s biggest corporation, Samsung should have been more society-oriented and responsible. It wasn’t and is now paying a hefty price. Samsung Medical Center in Seoul has become Public Enemy Number One, stigmatized as the epicenter of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak. Lee Jae-yong, better known as Jay Y. Lee and the heir apparent to the Samsung Group, bowed deeply and apologized for Samsung’s hospital’s role in the crisis at a press conference. Lee, who has taken over the Samsung Foundation on behalf of his sick father, pledged to finance vaccines and cures for infectious diseases. To borrow Gates’ words, recognition or the need for improved recognition has wrung some altruism out of Samsung.

Samsung is not likely to easily win back the approval of the public through such forced behavior. It is easy to criticize a corporate giant, but not so much to admire it. The MERS outbreak has exposed Samsung’s double position in Korean society. For the time, it must humbly bear the public resentment and hostility it has brought upon itself. It will have to demonstrate a persistent commitment to combat diseases in order to restore its reputation and gain favorable public opinion.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 25, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yi Jung-jae

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