The roots of incompetence
The author is chief editor of content production at the JoongAng Ilbo.
The coronavirus has already killed 54 South Koreans. Some of them were left to die at home because there were not enough hospital beds for them. Many bereaved families were not even able to hold decent funerals for those who died from the infectious disease.
They could have lived if they had received the world’s best medical care in their home country. No excuse can be made by the government. President Moon Jae-in, who defined the protection of public lives and safety as the primary function of the state, did not apologize. We cannot know if he truly believes he had no part in the deaths or whether he merely worries about the political risks if he apologizes.
The president has apologized several times over shortages of face masks in Korea. But again, it is not clear whether Moon truly understands the causes of the mask crisis. There are several good reasons for the crisis.
The government’s incompetence should be blamed first. The country has a population of 52 million, and its full mask production capacity is 70 million per week. When you exclude supplies for medical facilities and 14 million people in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the epicenter of infections, 56 million masks can at best go to the rest of the population. That means one mask for one person per week. Considering that everyone needs one to go out, those numbers are actually enough. Could government officials with decent educations not do such simple math?
The problem is that the authorities did not bother to check supply and demand when mapping out quarantine measures. When they advised people to wear masks, they should have studied our mask production capacity and distribution routes. It is a basic task for a government to check limited national resources in policymaking. The government did not even have that simple common sense.
Second, the Moon Jae-in administration has always been wishy-washy. If it had known of the supply shortage, it should have been honest about it with the people. The government learned of the graveness of the situation only when it saw people lining up in front of drug stores and groceries for hours to get masks. Then it said that healthy people don’t have to wear masks.
Such slippery attitudes chip away at public confidence. The government was dishonest even when it came up with a mask rationing plan. It announced it would offer two masks per person per week, even when supplies were not sufficient. It tried to conceal its mistake by begging the people to yield to others with more pressing needs, as requested by President Moon’s policy chief Kim Sang-jo. Is the Blue House accusing the public of being greedy for trying to get masks for minimum protection against Covid-19?
Third, the government’s measure was theoretical with little relation to reality. Since it banned surrogate purchases of masks, minors and the elderly had to wait in long queues to get masks according to their dates of birth. That violates the simple precaution against infectious diseases to avoid big crowds, and it ignored the vulnerability of children and senior citizens to infectious diseases. Cabinet ministers moved to make amends upon an order from Moon. Their idea of reducing the demand to meet the ration quota failed.
All these faults point to a denseness in officialdom. But the real problem can be found in policymakers’ sheer lack of understanding of market principles. The mask disaster stems from a shortage of supplies compared to a strong demand. The government was ignorant about both demand and supply. People will grab masks when a contagious disease spreads. If the government is unreliable, demand soars. If authorities had been clear about the mask situation — such as giving reliable information about purchases and reasonable guidelines for wearing them — there would have been less demand.
The government again interfered in the market by enforcing public purchases and distribution instead of motivating mask producers to increase supplies through attractive incentives.
The government’s ignorance of market principles and knee-jerk impulse to control the market caused the face mask disaster. Such ignorance and arrogance has wrecked the real estate market and self-employed business. The virus outbreak will be over one day. But families will never forget the loss of their loved ones, and the general public will not forget their suffering or inconvenience. They will certainly remember how hopeless the government was.