Who’s sorry now?
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s message was simple and clear. After the new coronavirus originating in China reached American shores, he suspended all travelers from China, as “protecting America from infectious diseases” was the primary goal of his administration. He defended the move as “saving many lives.” Chinese President Xi Jinping quarantined Koreans upon arrival in his country after infection cases surged in Korea. Apartment complexes where Koreans lived tried locking them out. When the Korean Foreign Ministry protested the extreme move, Beijing coolly responded that quarantine must come before diplomacy. The two leaders’ actions were decisive and resolute.
In contrast, President Moon Jae-in was ambiguous and wobbly. He demanded “quarantine actions without hurting the economy.” He did not want to upset China. In battling a deadly virus outbreak, he attempted to catch three rabbits at the same time: public health, economics, and diplomacy. All three rabbits scampered away. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun commanded the cabinet to be thorough in quarantining, yet without stoking “excessive fears.” He asked ministers to go ahead with government schedules as planned. Government officials understood the instruction as a call to be less strict in fighting the epidemic. Infected patients have exceeded 5,000 because they paid heed only to the words of the president and ignored advice and warnings from disease experts.
The face mask crisis also resulted from a policy flop. Taiwan stopped exports of masks since Feb. 4 to ensure supplies for its people. Masks were considered a strategic product. Moon went in the opposite direction. The government has repeatedly meddled in market activities for its income-led growth policy, but on masks, the state was nowhere to be seen. From Feb. 1 to 20, Korea’s mask shipments to China reached $102 million. Even if KF94 masks were shipped at 900 won ($0.76) each — tripling the wholesale price of 300 won per piece — as many as 150 million masks would have gone to China. Even if factories ran at their full capacity of producing 12 million per day, that cannot cover 50 million Koreans. Yet more than 7 million went to China every day. As a result, our citizens must queue for hours to buy a single mask. Korea, the world’s 11th largest economy, has become such a pitiful sight.
Trump stopped short of entirely slamming the doors on Koreans. But that’s not because he values the alliance. Instead, he accepted the advice of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers of Disease Control about Korea’s disease diagnosis capability. In a recent address, Trump ranked the 10 most advanced states in addressing infectious diseases — the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Thailand, Sweden, Denmark, Korea and Finland. Trump was citing a study by Johns Hopkins University and other experts. He factored in both political and scientific reasoning for his action. But Moon only considers the political factors.
Korea indeed can conduct over 15,000 tests for coronavirus infections a day, outstripping Japan, where two centers can do 1,700 a day. In the United States, only 500 are being tested a day. Korea’s capacity surged after private institutes were allowed to carry out tests from Feb. 7. Most of the diagnostic products are supplied by private companies like Green Cross and Seegene.
Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, currently heading the National Health Commission’s investigation team on the coronavirus outbreak, stressed that early diagnosis and quarantines were the best available responses to the virus. Korea has an enormous edge over Japan, which takes two to three days, or the United States, which takes longer than that, to get test results. In Korea, lab experts work around the clock in three shifts to come out with the results in just four hours. Kwon Gye-chul, head of the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine, believes that the outbreak could enter a turning point by mid-March.
But Moon is hardly in the position to take any credit. The diagnosis capability was enhanced during the past conservative governments. Authorities have been rigid in supervising and certifying laboratory work since 2009.
The coronavirus crisis has underscored some realities of Korean society and how it works. China contained the epidemic through a lockdown and mobilization of 40,000 medical staff. In Korea, the private sector armed with professionalism moved in speedily. Again, the country is being saved with little help from the government.
As an opposition leader in 2016, Moon attacked President Park Geun-hye for being two-faced and unremorseful. He led street rallies to blame her administration for the sinking of the Sewol ferry. Moon should look back on the criticisms he made four years ago. He managed to apologize for the face mask crisis, but if he keeps up this way, his apologies will no longer be accepted.