Not too little, not too much
The author is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
During weekends, I used to visit my son who is serving his military duty. But the base issued a ban on visitors this month due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus. So I decided to visit my friend living in Daejeon instead. I took an express bus, and almost all the passengers were wearing masks. It seemed like a scary scene from the movies.
I was waiting for my friend at the Yuseong Bus Terminal when two Chinese people, who seemed like a married couple, sat next to me. I didn’t mean it, but I did flinch. My family told me to stay home, but I told them I don’t fear the outbreak. But I guess I did care at the moment. After the Chinese travelers left to board a bus, I felt relieved.
When I went to drink with my friend, the restaurant was nearly empty. The waitress was kind. She cut grilled pork into small pieces for us at the table and brought us extra side dishes whenever necessary. She said the number of guests plummeted recently and the business was in trouble. We were welcomed at the restaurant. On my way back to Seoul, all the passengers were wearing masks again. I didn’t want to wear one because I felt suffocated. But I didn’t want to cause upset, so I followed them.
The novel virus outbreak is controlling our lives. Graduation and entrance ceremonies at schools are canceled. Companies drastically reduced their after-work drinking meetings. As people are staying home, businesses are suffering. Companies are postponing hiring. “The people are canceling trips to not only China and Southeast Asia but also Europe,” said a friend who is operating a travel agency. “If this continues till April, I will go bankrupt.”
Amid the gloomy mood, I heard good news. Korean residents of Wuhan, China — who had been quarantined at the government facilities in Asan, South Chungcheong, and Jincheon, North Chungcheong — finished their isolation periods and returned home. Signs were hung along the roads to wish them good luck after they return to their lives.
Insecurity is sweeping across our society as seen in the panic buying of masks and canceling of events. But government officials’ recent remarks exude a sense of confidence. During a meeting with business leaders last week, President Moon Jae-in declared that the outbreak “will soon come to an end.” On Saturday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also said, “We are anticipating that we will win the war against the virus.” Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon joined the chorus by saying, “We are doing far better than during the Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS] outbreak in 2015.” But the health authorities take the position that it is premature to say the outbreak is calming down.
Although the government confidently says it is doing well to counter the outbreak, various problems cropped up during its latest campaign. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had diplomatic issues with the international community including China, while the local governments had troubles in supporting the people under quarantine measures. The Ministry of Education had problems when it announced the shutdowns of schools, while the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of SMEs and Startups had issues with their policies to minimize damages from the frozen consumer sentiments for business owners. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism also failed to properly counter the rapid slowdown of the service industry. A report by the National Assembly Research Service also said the government must create a more comprehensive national disaster management, uniform command and control systems, where the prime minister is the highest responsible official, because ministries alone cannot implement prevention measures.
Although it could be better than belated, overreaction could also be a form of avoiding responsibility because it is based on the belief that “I and my department have done this much, so when a problem occurs, that is not our fault.” What we need right now is not excessive measures, but capabilities to make proper countermeasures.
After the MERS outbreak in 2015, demands were repeatedly made that the country needs more professional manpower, speedy sharing of information, and coordination of policies. But no progress has been made. The situation was so bad that a patient who was in isolation at a hospital in Gwangju had to make a sign to hang out their window to say that they had run out of daily necessities.
The government must not forget that “establishing an effective response system against infectious diseases to prevent recurrence of the failed countermeasure of the MERS outbreak” was the 45th item of the 100 national agendas of the Moon administration.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 17, Page 23