The buck stops
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I received a text message from a seasoned economic expert over the weekend as the worst-yet daily infection figures and uncertainties over vaccines weighed heavily on our minds. “I am reminded of the times of the financial crisis in 1997. We invited the crisis by dilly-dallying. Deep but quick and preemptive responses are the basics of crisis management. Fear over accountability has made society complacent, and a lack of responsibility has made the government impotent and irresponsible,” he lashed out.
The veteran official fought the Asian financial crisis that head-butted the country in late 1997. Although his name might be familiar, he preferred not to be quoted by name. To him, an economic crisis and pandemic are not fundamentally different. The response should be the same — decisive and fast. Otherwise, recovery will be slow. “We must enforce a lockdown immediately. Those carrying the novel coronavirus would be detected within two weeks and those infected will be treated by medical institutions. Complaints over inconsistent social distancing measures on businesses would ease, and the guidelines for compensation could become clearer,” he said.
There were disputes over bailout money during the financial crisis in late 1990s. But controversy died down upon the so-called fire-fighting theory. “Water must be used in excess in fighting fire as damage will be worse if the golden time is missed. A firefighter may step on flower gardens, but that is understood in a life-and-death situation.”
Decisiveness is most essential in dealing with a big crisis. Who should make the decisions? President Moon Jae-in or Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun must, without leaving it to those lower in the pecking order. Korea is devoid of strong leadership on the Covid-19 battleground. While heading an emergency meeting on Dec. 13, Moon asked quarantine authorities to make a decision when the time comes for the elevation of social distancing to the top Level 3. If not the president, who has the authority to decide? It may be the president’s speaking style. But he has been overly passive during controversies over soaring real estate prices and prosecution reforms, and hid behind Land Minister Kim Hyun-mee and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.
The president’s modesty and decisiveness have been uniquely selective. He likes to take credit for issues that bring public praise. During the spring outbreak, he threw a jjapaguri (ram-don) party at the Blue House to celebrate the winning of the Academy Award by the film “Parasite” (2019). And until recently, he has been patting himself on the back about Korea’s success in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic. While he allowed Chinese people to enter the country when Wuhan was the epicenter of the pandemic and tolerated rallies by progressive unionists, Moon censured the Shincheonji congregation when it became the locus of the biggest coronavirus outbreak in Korea, enforced a strict ban on conservative rallies, and held them accountable for spreading the disease. If this is not Covid-19 politics, what is?
In March, Moon dropped in at Seegene whose Covid-19 test kits were desired by many countries. He praised the company for “being the pride of Korea.” But his timing was poor. At the time, Daegu was in a near-lockdown as the virus spread fast. Couples married for more than 60 years were deprived of last moments together as the bodies had to be cremated. A 17-year-old teen died without getting proper treatment.
The president was not there. He repeatedly apologized to the children who died in the Sewol ferry and vowed the government would take responsibility for every death. But the president has never visited the Covid-19 mourning sites. A leader’s genuineness can be found in actions not words.
The president has reportedly scolded aides for the failure to get their hands on Covid-19 vaccines. But this is not the time for a blame game. If vaccines cannot be immediately secured, he must plead with the people to stay home. People are more anxious about poor leadership than late vaccines. The president is always in sight when he can be in the spotlight. Another worry is tormenting the public.