Disaster as change agent

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Disaster as change agent

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Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Disaster changes everything. Powers-that-be cannot avoid it, and the change is proportional to the size of the disaster. Covid-19 is a disaster of the sort mankind has never experienced. So the magnitude of change will be just as big. The New York Times discussed stories of leaders who did not respond to a disaster properly in “Who Will Win the Fight for a Post-Coronavirus America?” on March 29. I noticed two examples.

The first was former U.S. President George W. Bush. The first disaster, the Sept. 11 terror attack, was something he could use. He started two wars, restricted basic rights of the people, and reinforced his own power. But it didn’t last long. Four years later, a second disaster struck: Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Most of its victims were poor African-Americans, and Bush said no one expected the city’s levees to collapse. That was a lie. A videotape warning of a possible collapse of the levees was revealed, and Bush found himself in trouble. It led to the election of a Democratic president a few years later.

The second example was Chernobyl, whose results were only seen much later. Mikhail Gorbachev said that the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986 was the real cause of the Soviet Union’s dissolution five years later. The impact may not be immediate, but a disaster changes the game in the end.

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A man wears a face mask as he walks in front of a mural of skulls and flowers in New York on March 24. [EPA/YONHAP]

How about Korea? The Lee Myung-bak administration suffered significantly from a “fake disaster.” The mad cow disease panic in the early days of the administration weakened Lee’s power and changed the direction of his presidency. Lee was surprised by a crowd singing “Morning Dew” — a song representing the passions of the democracy movement in the 1970s and 80s — in Gwanghwamun Square. Who would fear an intimidated power? Lee had to scrap his election slogan of “business friendly.” He could not dare labor and pension reforms. He could finish his five-year term because the disaster was based on hysteria. But he was hobbled. The succeeding Park Geun-hye administration helplessly sank after she was unaccounted for during the seven hours in which the Sewol Ferry sank in 2014. Whether a disaster is real or not, big or small, it can bring down the powers-that-be when combined with factional rhetoric.

How about Covid-19? The April 15 parliamentary elections are the first yardstick. The public’s feelings about the Moon Jae-in administration and the ruling party are not that bad at present. Many predict a positive result rather than any kind of power change. This is not because the government excelled. It is thanks to outstanding private citizens, business and citizenship. More frankly, it is because others are worse. “Relative privation” is a logical error in psychology that B is nothing compared to A. For instance, it is like saying Korea is not as serious as the United States and Italy on Covid-19 cases and death tolls.

Yet that does not make 9,887 confirmed cases and 165 deaths in Korea disappear. Compare the number not to the Western developed countries but to Southeast Asian countries. Korea’s situation is not so impressive. Singapore and Hong Kong are models of disease control, and Korea’s numbers are not comparable to Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, which banned people entering from China early on.

I cannot be sure of the distribution of power in the future after Covid-19. But I can guess the scene after the April 15 general elections. If the ruling Democratic Party wins, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol will be the first one to be investigated by the special law enforcement agency handling senior officials’ corruption. Cho Kuk — the symbol of inconsistent standards — will emerge as a presidential hopeful. When Covid-20 or Covid-21 hits again, people coming from China will continue to walk freely in Korea, and Koreans will care for Chinese patients.

Face mask rationing will be the new normal, and people in their 60s, who used to enjoy seasons of second youth, will continue to die from the virus. Supporting the falling economy and lost jobs with taxes will continue. The reckless drive of the government that pushed for the eradication of past evils, a nuclear phase-out, income-driven growth and pro-labor policies will gain further momentum. If some disadvantageous things happen, the government will continue blaming the incompetent opposition.

As the Sept. 11 terror attacks covered up Bush’s failures, Covid-19 can cover up the bare face of the Moon administration temporarily. But not forever.

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