A game of chickenDoctors kicked off a three-day strike Wednesday to protest the Moon Jae-in administration’s controversial plans to drastically increase the number of medical students and establish a “public medical school” to help ease insufficient medical infrastructure in provinces. Including Saturday and Sunday, that amounts to a five-day walkout. To prevent an inevitable medical vacuum, President Moon on Wednesday ordered law enforcement agencies to “sternly deal with such an emergency.”
This is the first general strike by doctors in 10 years. In 2010, they staged a general strike to oppose a government policy on dispensing of drugs. A full-fledged walkout amid a second spike in Covid-19 cases rings alarms. Over 300 new infections were found on Tuesday.
The strike was triggered by the government’s push to increase the number of medical students, establish what it calls a “public medical school,” allow insurance to be used for oriental medicine, and start remote treatments. Defining those plans as “four evils of the government’s medical policy,” the Korean Medical Association (KMA) is demanding the government withdraw them immediately, while the government vows to press ahead with them to help address the imbalance in medical services between Seoul and other regions. The government has said, however, that it can put the plans on hold until the country has passed the challenge of Covid-19.
The walkout can be blamed on the government’s rush and failure to consult the doctors’ group. For instance, the Health Ministry’s attempt to include representatives of civic groups in the process of recommending candidates for a public medical school helped fuel suspicion about its motivation.
On their part, doctors need to understand that a strike cannot win public support. The government ordered intern and resident physicians to return to their hospitals from 8 a.m. Wednesday. If they do not follow the order, they can be sentenced to up to three years in jail or fined up to 30 million won ($25,284).
Nevertheless, the KMA went ahead with a general strike. KMA President Choi Dae-zip threatened an indefinite walkout if the government takes excessive administrative action. However, KMA’s such hard-line position can hardly win support from the public when Covid-19 is spreading fast. At the peak of the first spike in February and March, doctors rushed to Daegu to treat patients, for which they were praised as heroes. Today the government and doctors are engaged in a game of chicken. We urge them to come to their senses before it’s too late.