Nat’l Assembly suggests splitting Health Ministry

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Nat’l Assembly suggests splitting Health Ministry

The National Assembly has suggested dividing the Ministry of Health and Welfare into two entities in order to better prevent the spread of infectious diseases after an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) here swept the country, exposing the government’s inefficiency in handling the crisis.

In a proposal drafted by parliament’s MERS countermeasures committee, lawmakers across the aisle called on the government to split the ministry into a Health Ministry and Welfare Ministry so that authorities could exclusively commit to responding to and preventing the outbreak of infectious diseases.

Authorities announced the first MERS case in Korea in May, and in the two months since, the outbreak has claimed the lives of 36 people, the highest toll in a nation outside the Middle East.

It took the government 69 days to declare the outbreak practically over, though it has still not technically ended. The deaths of three dozen patients also spurred a wave of criticism toward the Park Geun-hye administration for its failure to organize a central chain of command and effectively prevent the spread of the virus.

Many critics specifically directed their disapproval at Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo, whom they argued lacked the leadership ability to handle such a massive public health crisis, particularly since he has no medical background. Vice Minister Chang Ok-ju, a welfare expert, also has no experience in the medical sector.

The disease, which was brought to Korea by a 68-year-old man who returned to Korea in May from a business trip to the Middle East, infected 186 people. Patient No. 1 was confirmed to have MERS on May 20; while the last patient was reported July 5.

In addition, the government earmarked 43.4 trillion won ($37.1 billion) for welfare-related tasks, the ministry said. A quarter of that sum, 10.02 trillion won, is committed to health policies this year.

In its draft proposal, the Assembly emphasized the need to divide the role of the Health and Welfare Ministry so the government can better prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the future by “establishing a central command by which to counter the emergence of a new infectious disease.”

“But if that is not feasible, then we will at least call for two vice ministers to be appointed [so that one can commit exclusively to public health],” said ruling Saenuri Party Rep. Shin Sang-jin, who oversaw the MERS countermeasure committee in the National Assembly.

The proposal also pointed to the lack of a central command to handle the outbreak, “compounding the complications” in authorities’ response.

It also called out the government for causing what it said was unnecessary confusion by stating that the latency period for MERS was 14 days despite some cases proving that symptoms could lie dormant for more than two weeks.

The MERS committee also faulted the government for prematurely declaring that the disease was not transmitted through the air, while the World Health Organization (WHO) left open the possibility that it could be spread via air, or solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere.

It further blamed the authorities for their lack of knowledge on the disease and the government’s tendency to conceal information that could have been useful to the public, specifically referencing the government’s refusal in the first days of the outbreak to disclose a list of hospitals that had treated MERS-infected patients.

The special parliamentary committee will formally adopt the proposal today and is expected to send it to the Assembly’s regular session next month to have lawmakers approve it.

BY KANG JIN-KYU, JEONG JONG-MOON [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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