A ministry of its own
The National Assembly has proposed to divide the Ministry of Health and Welfare into two ministries: a welfare ministry and a health and medicine ministry. A special committee of the legislature came up with the idea of creating a ministry exclusively in charge of public health, medical and quarantine affairs after the fatal outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in May. That showed how ill prepared our government is for outbreaks of infectious diseases.
The committee also suggested that the administration raise the legal status of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the vice ministerial level and appoint two vice ministers under the current ministry. The National Assembly took the action after the MERS outbreak wreaked havoc on our society due to a critical lack of a central crisis control system within the government. The ministry had no public health expert to lead it when MERS caught the country off guard two months ago.
From the beginning, it was absurd for us to expect effective leadership from Minister Moon Hyung-pyo, a pensions expert, and Vice Minister Chang Ok-ju, a welfare expert. Moon could not help but neglect an internal report on the outbreak as he had to concentrate on the passage of the civil service pension reform bill. While he was bent on getting the bill passed, the ministry staff could not focus on blocking the fatal spread of the illness.
Our welfare budget accounts for 80 percent of the ministry’s entire budget and the slim balance goes to public health and medicine. Most of the ministry’s major posts are occupied by officials who passed the higher civil service exam. Among 27 ministers in the past, only two hailed from the medical sector. As a result, senior officials always prefer welfare posts to public health for their promotions. Budget and manpower also are first allocated to welfare departments, and budget proposals for public health are always trimmed down by the legislature.
But most advanced countries like the United States, Germany and Australia have ministries and agencies exclusively for public health, which shows the significance they attach to the public health sector. In our case, any demands for better public disease management fizzles out in the face of opposition and a scarcity of budget. At the peak of the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and swine flu here, medical professionals and ordinary citizens alike called for a drastic increase in quarantine experts, but Korea still has extremely few experts in epidemiology. The fast proliferation of MERS was an inevitable offshoot considering the lethargic response from the outset.
Kim Choon-jin, chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee, proposed a bill to separate welfare from health and medicine last month. We hope the move leads to an improvement in our public health. JoongAng Ilbo, July 30, page 30