Pinning the blame

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Pinning the blame

The Board of Audit and Inspection proposed dismissing the head of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Yang Byung-guk, and demoting or suspending eight other people at the center and the health ministry in disciplinary actions after investigating the poor preventive measures and response to the outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) last summer.

It also recommended lesser disciplinary measures for seven other officials after it probed 18 institutions. It is disappointing that the liability for the unprecedented spread of a disease that infected 186 people, killed 38, put 16,693 in quarantine and terrified an entire nation is pinned on a mere handful of officials.

The board said nothing about then Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo, who spearheaded the government’s response to the outbreak. It blamed working-level officials for negligence and concluded that no fault was found at the higher level. Who could believe that the head of a ministry is clear of any responsibility in a probe that describes lax awareness among health authorities?

The government watchdog confirmed that it was the delay in the announcement of a list of hospitals that had been contaminated, which the government withheld until the public demanded it, was what led to the rapid spread of the disease. How is the minister not to blame for that?

Public sector discipline cannot be reinforced through such a slack probe. That’s like placing the responsibility for a fire on the firefighters who tried to battle it.

Choi Sung-jung, a former health minister, stepped down in 2000 after trying to draw up an agreement for medical reforms to assign responsibility in the aftermath of a disaster. He said he could not let his ministry officials, who had worked hard, take the fall.

The probe uncovered laxity at the body in charge of preventing and controlling diseases. The center received advice from the World Health Organization eight times between 2013 and 2015 to take precautionary steps about MERS.

It knew it could not contain the spread by quarantining infected people, and yet the center did not disclose the names of the hospitals in time and failed to stop the spread of MERS.

The government must recognize the poor response and the need for timely disclosure of information. Health authorities must advance quarantine procedures and reform their organizations to ensure the protection of public health.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 15, Page 30

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