You must talk science
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
While scientific grounds to convince the people have been lacking, political judgments to back government policy have been in excess in the Covid-19 campaign under Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). In his remarks recommending her as one of this year’s Time Magazine’s Most Influential People, President Moon Jae-in credited success in antivirus efforts to her communication with the people based on “openness, transparency and democracy.”
Many could angrily come to her defense for any criticism toward the most respected hero in the country. Jung has added much gray to her hair during a lengthy battle with the novel coronavirus. Still, the track record shows her campaign was more influenced by political factors than data-backed scientific expertise.
Her ambiguity toward the decisions behind the recent easing in social restrictions to the lowest level and the designation of Aug. 17 as a temporary holiday are examples.
Under the government’s quarantine guidelines, daily cases in Covid-19 must stay under 50 for two weeks to bring the social restriction order back to the lowest Level 1. But daily averages hovered at 60 when the government decided on the easing. If the quarantine authority really made the decision based on much lower fatality rates and even less serious cases than before, it should have explained so to the public. In other words, the KDCA could have advised the people to pay heed to the contagious risk just as with a seasonal influenza.
But Jung maintained the warning tone and advised people to refrain from pleasure trips, such as autumn mountain climbing, due to the risk of cluster infection. Instead of sternly opposing the government order, she was once again demanding self-restraint from the people.
People had to endure inconveniences frequently due to government fickleness. The government created a long weekend by making Monday, Aug. 17 a temporary holiday and handed out stimulus vouchers and coupons to encourage people to go out and spend. When the virus resurged as a result, the government imposed a near lockdown. People had to cancel marriage ceremonies and refrain from family gatherings during the Chuseok holiday.
We trusted Jung for her scientific judgment to lessen flaws in public quarantine policy. But her staunchness waned. She stayed on the sidelines and condoned the stimulus actions. When the government came under fire for failing to consult with the KDCA before making Aug. 17 a temporary holiday, she came to the government’s defense and claimed she had agreed to the decision without presenting separate opinions. She said the tally in infection cases had plateaued at the time. But the count was also stable ahead of the Oct. 3 holiday, yet she warned against mass rallies to protect the government and backed its policy.
She also called for vigilance ahead of the Hangul Day on Oct. 9 in fear of another wave from large-scale antigovernment rallies. Somehow she no longer used scientific evidence in the campaign against the virus.
She also went along with the impromptu ceremony at the agency where all the employees were forced to gather in one place to indulge the president who came to the office personally to hand Jung the certificate of appointment promoting her to the vice-ministerial-level chief position.
Political exploitation of Jung was expected, with the ruling party rushing to capitalize on her popularity for its gain in the April 15 parliamentary elections. Candidates all courted her for a photo on their campaign leaflet. She should have turned away politicians to focus on her duty. Anthony Pouch, director of the National Allergy and Infectious Diseases Research Center under the National Institutes of Health, criticized President Donald Trump for using him in an election campaign ad. Jung has not maintained a scientist’s dignity by defying political orders and policies without scientific considerations. It is why she is suspected of playing to the political tune.
We want explanations from Jung on how our subway has stayed immune to virus spread even before mask wearing became compulsory in subway trains in Seoul used by 7.5 million commuters a day — and why similar indoors cluster infection cases have not occurred if air conditioners can spread the virus.