Nonsensical self-praise

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Nonsensical self-praise

“In the short period of time after the first MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] patient was confirmed in Korea, many others were diagnosed. But the government responded comprehensively and promptly cooperated with the civilian sector to minimize the damage.”

At the second Global Health Security Agenda Forum in Seoul on Sept. 7, the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s head of public health policy Kwon Jun-wook explained the MERS outbreak in Korea as the second speaker. He was speaking to over 200 high-level health and security officials from 46 countries, experts from international organizations, including the World Health Organization, and domestic and foreign press. Kwon had been overseeing the MERS response since late May.

“Frequent international exchanges have made contagious diseases able to spread anywhere in the world in 24 hours,” said Kwon. In his 10-minute speech, he constantly emphasized how the government successfully responded to the inevitable spread of the foreign virus. The disease was far more contagious than expected, and a “super-spreader” made the situation worse, but the government responded promptly to minimize the crisis.

“Under the leadership of the prime minister’s office, a government response team was set up to orchestrate cooperation between the Ministry of Health and Welfare and other ministries, and local governments strictly controlled people under self-quarantine. In order to trace suspected patients, mobile communication service providers helped.” Here, foreign attendees at the event exchanged glances and laughed. I was embarrassed by the continued self-praise. A foreign reporter at the forum cynically joked, “I wanted to find out what the Korean government learned from the MERS crisis, but it seems like there never was a crisis.”

Korea had the second-largest MERS outbreak in the world, and it was the most serious among countries with no wild camels. Since the first patient was diagnosed on May 20, 186 have been diagnosed with MERS, and 36 of them died. Eight patients are still hospitalized with the deadly virus. The government hasn’t declared the MERS crisis over. We can’t laugh off the government official’s tale of heroism.

Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), attended the forum and met with reporters. He said health authorities can’t be perfect all the time, but it’s important to acknowledge shortcomings and make efforts to find solutions. Even the government can make a wrong decision. But if it fails to learn from failures, it will repeat the same mistakes. Korean government officials need to think about what makes the CDC the most trusted government agency by Americans.

The author is a national news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 9, Page 33


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