Dear Mr. President
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
This is addressed to President Moon Jae-in. A virus has stifled the air and dominated our lives. It has permeated into our homes, workplaces and streets. We keep our distance from neighbors, with everyone suspecting one another as potential communicators of disease. We are forced to become separated from our loved ones. We pray this tiny mask protects us from the virus.
Everyone habitually checks the situation board where hundreds of newly infected people are added. In epidemiology, there is a term called the basic reproductive ratio, or R0, denoting the number of new infections generated over the course of an infection period.
According to the World Health Organization, the ratio was two to five in the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), meaning one person transmitted the coronavirus to two to five others. SARS, which originated in China in November 2002, spread to over 8,000 people in 37 countries over the course of nine months and killed 774.
The new coronavirus (Covid-19) has been more viral and deadly, with confirmed cases topping 100,000 in 80 countries and killing over 3,500. Assuming the Covid-19’s reproductive ratio is similar to SARS’s, the tally of 5,000 infection cases in Korea could jump to 10,000 to 25,000 if quarantines do not work very well. The number will go on multiplying if it is not contained. How the government can casually congratulate itself for addressing the epidemic is really baffling.
Its baseless declaration that the disease would be over soon has brought about today’s catastrophe. The argument from author Jared Diamond in his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that the great Aztec and Inca civilizations in Latin America came down because Spaniards brought in animal infections during their conquests sounds more plausible than ever. Documentaries on the 1918 Spanish flu — the deadliest pandemic in modern history that killed 50 million to 100 million people — brings shivers.
South Korea, the world’s ninth biggest trading power, is being isolated. More than half of 193 states under the United Nations have sealed off their borders against Koreans. People cannot step out of their planes in certain countries — or are being quarantined upon arriving in other countries. If the United States joins in, Koreans will be shunned by major European countries as well. There is a silent pressure on Koreans to lock themselves out.
Is this the “Korea-China, a community of the same fate” you mentioned during your visit to China, President Moon? You have refused to close our borders to Chinese by arguing, “China’s troubles are the same as ours.” But China did not think that way. You didn’t want to upset Beijing in order to host President Xi Jinping before the April 15 general elections. Xi has ordered a tracking of where the virus originally came from. We fear some kind of scheme to blame Daegu for the infection instead of Wuhan.
The economy is wrecked. Misfortune is most hard on the weak. A shopkeeper’s direct complaint to you about her crappy business was not an exaggeration. Anyone stopped on the street can speak of their fear of being laid off or going bankrupt. Daily hires and temporary workers cannot find work. Self-employed businesses are closing down. Salaried workers are forced to use up their paid or unpaid leave. They fear they will get redundancy notices next time. The chill is graver than in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis in 1997.
Everything is bewildering. Diplomacy is of no use in the face of a virus attack. People’s incomes decreased because of your income-led growth policy. We are ridiculed as a “cowardly dog” by the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Our society has been polarized by the extreme right and left. We are forced to stay indoors or get sick.
Despite a supersized budget of 512 trillion won ($430 billion) and another record supplementary budget of 11 trillion won, people cannot get their hands on a single face mask. We cannot understand why you keep cabinet ministers who blame our people for bringing in the virus from China and go after the religious group of the Shincheonji church. The people are falling ill, and yet your staff are entirely engrossed in self-pardoning and finding scapegoats. You must kick out those who spread the virus of division and hatred.
A president has full responsibility over state affairs. The radical religious cult cannot avoid criticism for its role, but there is no denying the government missed the golden time to contain the infectious disease. Negligence and misjudgments have worsened the disaster. The chaos from Covid-19 cannot be coincidental. The virus has hit hardest the weak and the sick, and was accelerated by our society’s inner contradictions and distrust.
You must apologize for the worst-ever national disaster and take responsibility. Only then will the people be willing to devote their toil and sweat to coming through this crisis. Only when we unite, we can beat our inner weaknesses together. We hope this cruel time will end and allow us to enjoy a springtime without the virus fear. The choice is yours, Mr. President.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 6, Page 31