Putting public health first

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Putting public health first

Has the government already forgotten about the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)? Because the proposed bill for next year’s budget doesn’t include any spending to increase our pitiful pool of quarantine officers.

The government pledged to boost quarantine capabilities to preempt inroads and the spread of infectious diseases after the MERS outbreak. But without the necessary manpower, it’s just an empty promise. It must have forgotten that MERS spread unusually fast in Korea because of botched early-stage quarantine action.

Quarantine officers are essential in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just two quarantine officers on the permanent payroll and 40 on a contractual basis. They can hardly be expected to cover the nation’s air, sea and land borders.

In July, the National Assembly passed the Infectious Disease Prevention and Control law to bestow government employee status to quarantine officers. And the Ministry of Health and Welfare submitted a proposal for reorganization, but the Ministry of the Interior has been dragging its feet, claiming the issue needs further review.

The necessary spending to increase manpower was dropped from next year’s budget plan because of a delay in the decision. This kind of negligence is incomprehensible, especially when a policy decision has been set with legislative approval.

Both the prime minister and health minister pledged to increase the number of quarantine officers, and the Ministry of the Interior later said it could recruit a quarantine officer next year with reserve funds. But the thought of recruiting a key public official via reserve funds is outrageous. The Ministry of the Interior may have to be discreet about increasing the number of government employees, but reinforcements in national quarantine procedures are crucial, particularly with the country becoming more exposed to infectious diseases due to freer travel.

The government is neglecting its public duty if it refuses to prioritize public health. The government must revise the budget bill to include a plan to reinforce the national quarantine office. If it cannot strengthen a single administrative procedure, how does it expect the public to have any confidence in the government’s ability to protect them from infectious diseases?

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 23, Page 34
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