Not inspiring confidenceThe death toll in China from the coronavirus outbreak surged to 362 as of Monday morning, exceeding the 349 deaths during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. Authorities in Seoul must remain vigilant to prevent the spread of an epidemic in this nation.
The mood in China has turned panicky. Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert who became a national hero for his role in the SARS outbreak, was called back to head an investigation of the new virus for the National Health Commission. Zhong warned of an explosive spread of the new virus in its developmental stage. He predicted the spread of the virus could peak over the next two weeks. Controlling the spread amid a surge in rail traffic from Feb. 8 to 10 — after the end of the Lunar New Year holiday — could be the most important goal at this point.
Seoul announced that from midnight Tuesday, foreigners arriving from Hubei Province in China would be turned away from Korea. But more than 40 percent of cases of the new illness are now outside Hubei. Experts say such a limited ban won’t be of much help. According to health authorities in China, five provinces — Zhejiang, Guangdong, Henan, Hunan and Anhui — out of 31 provinces and cities generated more than 300 patients. The Korean Medical Association recommends travel bans on people from five other locations — Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Jiangzhou, Changsha and Nanjin — which have the highest infection rates outside of Wuhan.
The government’s measures have other problems. Passports only identify the country of a traveler and do not specify where he or she has been in the previous few days or weeks, pointed out Kim Do-kyun, head of the Korea Immigration Service Foundation.
Quarantine guidelines from the World Health Organization and Korea also raise questions about how countries work together to help stop the spread of such a dangerous disease.
In a secretariat meeting, President Moon Jae-in said the entry ban was necessary to protect public health, stressing that the well-being of the public must come before economic interests. But his government’s measures still fall below expectations, according to experts.
The government initially announced it would restrict Koreans from making pleasure trips to China, but hours later said that option was only being studied. It apologized for causing confusion. It has come under attack for being overly solicitous of Beijing at the expense of public safety. It must act fast to bring home 70,000 students studying in China.
The government has been unreliable and sloppy from the beginning of the outbreak. Yet Lee Hae-chan, head of the ruling Democratic Party, congratulated the government for its “appropriate” actions. The government has aggravated public anxiety and inconvenience because of its wobbly and unreliable policies. Both the government and ruling party must prioritize the interests of their own people in drawing up measures against a pandemic.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 4, Page 30