The year of self-survival
The author is the economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Social media has been busy with the New Year ritual of exchanging greetings featuring the Zodiac animal of the year. The coming year is the Year of the Ox. Humorous rhyming games are playing out with the word so — the sound of the Korean word for an ox and also a Korean suffix in a prayer.
The Covid-19 crisis has been particularly cruel on shopkeepers and the self-employed who must somehow try to survive, college graduates and job seekers who must survive a barren job market, and the employed who must survive a harsh wave of streamlining. Others more fortunate hope to maintain their relationships amid social distancing and sustain their mental health even while stuck at home.
The most despairing in this situation have to be the self-employed. Some couldn’t take it any more and defied government-enforced social distancing restrictions and shutdown orders on their businesses, meant to help contain the spread of the virus. Although shutdown orders remain for many businesses, 300 or more fitness centers across the capital region opened.
Another 700 businesses subject to closure lit up their sign boards to protest what they consider to be overly strict social distancing measures. Cafe owners who face penalties if they serve food indoors also became defiant. Petitions calling for relief from the social distancing restrictions orders have swelled in cafe community sites. Cram schools and yoga and fitness centers have filed damages suits against the government.
The self-employed have so far endured government orders. Thanks to their cooperation and sacrifice, Korea could become a model in curbing the spread of the disease. But they no longer can take it. On Dec. 30, a petitioner from the Pilates and Fitness Business Association posted a message on the Blue House web page calling for fairness in social distancing measures. “Sports facility operators are also a minority and weak party in society. Sports trainers are even weaker. We have no social influence. Our plea becomes muffled for the sake of majority. Our lives are threatened more from meager living conditions than Covid-19,” he wrote.
Self-employed businesses are finding power in numbers, citing examples of other businesses that were exempted from shutdowns after protests. The year-long quarantine has pushed the self-employed to the cliff. Since the state cannot help, each has to survive on his or her own.
The bigger business community at large has its own problems in the New Year. A National Assembly dominated by the ruling Democratic Party (DP) passed three controversial bills on commerce, fair trade and financial group supervision, which all spell trouble for conglomerates. Another law calling for heavier punishment on employers for occupational accident victims is also set to pass. Business groups petitioned for a minimum of changes to lessen the burden on companies, but the government and the DP remain heedless. In Korea, nearly all small and mid-sized enterprises are run by a founder and his family. If the employer gets arrested for industrial accidents at worksites, their business could be threatened due to a void in leadership, not to mention dealing with the accident.
Companies have entirely lost hope in the Moon Jae-in administration, which they consider stubborn and leftist. They will have to somehow survive the stifling regulations as easing them will not be easy ahead of major elections this year. Self-survival is the key word for businesses.
According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual national ranking by British private think tank Legatum Institute, South Korea came in 28th among 167 countries in the 2020 list released in November. But in the social capital category, the country’s scorecard is extremely poor as it ranked 139th. Distrust toward others has only deepened with the spread of Covid-19.
A community is healthy when it runs on cooperation and harmony. Yet our society is forcing each member to be selfish. This year could be the Year of Self-Survival. But since it is the beginning, let’s keep up some hope for a turnaround.