The future leadership

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The future leadership

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Choi Hoon
The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Not just people, but organizations, countries and history mature through a crisis. A crisis is composed of a villain, a victim and a hero. Lately, the coronavirus has left countless people ill, resulted in many deaths and destroyed our lives for 86 days. The leadership of many heroes has allowed us to endure the crisis, and they must be recorded for lessons for the future. While everything is still ongoing, let’s think about Jung Eun-kyeong — the director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) — praised as the real hero by the Wall Street Journal.

“This is not the power of the public health authorities, but an alliance of the society,” Jung said Friday. “I pay my heartfelt respect to the public health and medical professionals who made sacrifices, residents of Daegu and North Gyeongsang who cooperated, and the people of the country who voluntarily participated in social distancing.” She made the remarks on the day when Daegu reported no new infections for the first time since its cluster outbreaks started in February.

During the 218 days of the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015, Jung was the head of the disease prevention center at KCDC. After the crisis ended, she received a suspension, a heavy punishment, from the Board of Audit and Inspection. That was a scarlet letter that would block her successful career as a public servant.

“It was a nationwide epidemic that we’ve never experienced. No one knew what to do,” said an official who served as a vice ministerial-level official at the time. “The authorities tried to hide everything such as infected hospitals. Officials of the KCDC in Osong, North Chungcheong, who were supposed to work in the field, spent most of their time visiting Seoul to report to the government. That was a critical blow. They were too busy to attend the meetings at the Blue House, with the prime minister, ministers and the National Assembly, where top politicians wanted to demonstrate their presence.

Because the officials missed the fieldwork, statistics were inaccurate. At the onset of the new coronavirus outbreak, he gave just one piece of advice to Jung’s team at the KCDC. “Never leave the field. If someone asks you to come and report about the situation, tell the media about it and respond that you have no time to visit,” Jung said. Her team still respects that advice.

In 2015, nine senior officials of the KCDC received heavy punishments, but the minister of health and welfare, who was the top supervisor, was not punished by the Board of Audit and Inspection. The minister, a pension expert, was appointed as the head of the National Pension Service later, prompting fierce public criticisms.

Then Minister of Personnel Management Lee Geun-myeon remembered what had happened at the time. “Responses were not perfect, but the officials at the KCDC did their best,” Lee said. “Most of all, how can you build a system for the future if you dismiss all veterans and experts who just started a new experience in disinfection? We kept the key experts, including an easing of punishment on Jung. Before I joined the government, I was in charge of personnel management in the private sector for 30 years. I had a belief that the expertise must be kept alive. Many of Jung’s team today are the professionals who were saved from dismissals at the time.”

The Wall Street Journal said Jung politely turned down an interview request and refrained from talking about herself and using social media. “I don’t think we’ll ever see Dr. Jung take a victory lap,” the reporter said.

The newspaper praises Jung’s calmness, patience and prestige, as opposed to the calculated self-praises of politicians. Dr. Ahn Yoon-ok — a member of the National Academy of Medicine of Korea who had supervised Jung’s doctoral degree thesis — remembers that she had scolded her once because Jung didn’t tell anyone about her parent’s funeral. “She didn’t tell anyone because she was a public servant and she didn’t want to burden anyone,” Ahn said. “She is transparent. She doesn’t calculate her gains and losses.”

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo — who faced strong demands from opposition politicians for resignation after saying Korea’s disinfection system is a model case and will become a global standard — is an expert in social welfare policy. He was a teacher of the late President Roh Moo-hyun at the Daechang Elementary School in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang. Based on the tie, he joined President Moon Jae-in’s think tank for the presidential election and later joined the cabinet. Public servants want to work in welfare departments because it is easy to win votes by spending money and receive compliments. Public servants who passed the civil servant exam have often controlled public health experts by using a politician-turned-minister as a shield.

The current KCDC’s two major centers are headed by career public servants. Jung, a doctor, only sleeps a few hours a day because she even gives briefings on data, which can be handled by the center heads. It is a structural problem that she is overloaded. The Ministry of Health and Welfare must become independent from bureaucrats who are used to regulations and avoiding responsibility.

The leadership in public health, national defense and state finance must be led by elite professionals, irrelevant to an administration’s ideology. Leaders who are spending all their time and effort pleasing the Blue House will collapse at a moment of the truth. We want a functioning system where the judgements of experts and beliefs are reflected in the fields without contamination by ideological viruses. That should be the future.

Another key factor to overcoming a crisis is trust accumulated in peaceful times. The society was split over the government’s policy toward an entry ban on only some travelers from China and the country’s shortage of face masks. The conflicts were caused because the public trust in the government’s new policies were weak. When they do not trust the government, it has no power to persuade them.

Hardworking medical professionals, ordinary people who never complained about social distancing and wearing face masks, delivery workers who risked their health to work, churches that willingly stopped services and companies that developed test kits are the real heroes. The general elections are a moment to select new representatives in the National Assembly for the next four years. We must vote for the candidates whose pledges reflect their own lives. We must vote for candidates with calmness and humility. We must never vote for candidates who promise to build a paradise out of the blue.
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