Why the vaccine delay?We can only envy Singapore which will soon be able to vaccinate its people with the arrival of the first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Japan will be the next Asian country to offer the shots validated by international authorities.
Details are being revealed little by little about why the government has failed in early vaccine procurement, requiring a thorough investigation. In an interview, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun admitted that the government had not seen the urgent need for vaccines when it had launched a taskforce as infection cases per day stayed around 100 in July. His comment suggests authorities did not pay heed to calls from experts to procure enough vaccines.
Presidential policy chief Kim Sang-jo led the taskforce when it was launched in late June. But its vaccine procurement project lost steam after he left the team and handed over the command to the Health Ministry. Working-level officials could not advocate for procurement as they did not have a say in pricing and purchase scale. Jung Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, put the vaccine taskforce under Na Sung-woong, a deputy with expertise in quarantine, instead of Kwon Joong-wook, another deputy who was head of the National Health Institute. Since the chief was ignorant to vaccines, the Korean team could not approach the big makers like Pfizer and Moderna.
The Finance Ministry is also said to have been reluctant about the idea of stretching the budget for vaccine procurement. It is deplorable that it had been meager in budgeting for public vaccination when it had been so prodigal in populist policies.
The general belief in the Blue House and government was that Korea was coping relatively well in the fight against the virus and did not urgently need vaccines as a Korean cure would be possible by January. Blind faith has led authorities to neglect vaccines.
It was too late when authorities finally joined the race. In a G-20 virtual summit conference in late November, President Moon Jae-in called for fair vaccine distribution, but vaccines were already reserved for selective developed countries.
Former chief of the disease control center Lee Jong-ku claimed he had stressed the need for vaccine procurement in February and June during his meetings with the president. If aides had paid heed to the urge from experts, Korea would not have been so pitifully left out in vaccine procurement.
Daily counts remain around 1,000 for the last few days, but deaths are increasing sharply. Jung projected daily tally could reach 1,200 next week.
In the meantime, people are banned from meeting in groups of more than four until Jan. 3 under a new administrative order to contain the spread during the year-end season. People are forced to end the year and greet a new year on a grim note due to misjudgment by the government.