Break down the bureaucracyThe Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) deserves criticism for reporting the 17th and 18th cases of coronavirus infection to Health Minister Park Neung-hoo before disclosing the findings to the public. The fiasco was revealed after a memo in the hands of Park was caught on camera while he attended a meeting with senior officials from the government, ruling Democratic Party and Blue House on Wednesday. Until then, only the 16th case had been reported. The center scurried to issue a press statement on the revelation after the picture of the memo went public.
An official from the KCDC said that it gave an immediate briefing to the minister and did not intend to report the development first to policymakers. Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the KCDC, promised last week that she would not dither in sharing new information. But the agency withheld the information about a patient confirmed infected in Seoul for 15 hours. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon joined the criticism by pointing out that public jitters can build up if developments in the spread of a communicable disease are not shared in real time.
Education authorities and local governments also have been uncooperative in sharing relevant information. They have not disclosed the information on the retail outlets, public spaces and day care centers that confirmed patients have visited. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education advised 50 after-school cram academies to close after a parent of a student went into self-isolation after learning that they were seated next to the 12th patient in a movie theater. But it did not disclose the names of the cram schools and caused anxiety for parents. A call center run by Seoul City has been receiving a flood of calls asking which restaurants the confirmed patient went to.
However, some information that should not have been disclosed has been leaked. A female Korean national with flu symptoms who returned to Busan from Wuhan to spend time with her family during the Lunar New Year break reported to authorities after she felt ill. But she received calls from her acquaintances while waiting for the results of a test in a clinic. The information had been leaked after the clinic shared it with police.
During the spread of a contagious disease, indiscreet information disclosures can fuel public distrust and fears. It can be more harmful than the disease itself. The impact of a disease can be more damaging due to a lack of transparency.
Health authorities should be speedy in disclosing necessary information and ensuring privacy protection for individuals. Fake news must be contained. But that does not pardon the government for being sloppy about sharing information.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 6, Page 30