Vaccines are no panacea
The author is a professor of preventive medicine and public health at Yeungnam University.
The long-awaited inoculations against Covid-19 have begun in Korea. The first shipment rolled out of a local factory on Wednesday and vaccinations start today. The development of Covid-19 vaccines in just a year reflects humanity’s desperation to combat an unprecedented pandemic that has affected almost every person across the planet.
When a pandemic breaks out, social distancing and vaccines are the first means to fight it. The second means to battle the pandemic is testing and the third is cures. The global community endured harsh lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and yearlong distancing rules due to a lack of vaccines. Inoculations will help strengthen the first defense.
However, we must not lower our guard. Even with vaccines available, self-protection through social distancing must be sustained to fend off a fourth wave in the spring.
Vaccines could look like an oasis after a lengthy journey in a desert. But they cannot be a panacea. With the start of vaccinations, authorities will come under mounting pressure to ease social distancing and other types of quarantine measures ahead of the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan, the most populated cities in Korea, to help win the elections.
Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), vowed to administer a vaccine program in an “orderly and fair” manner. But a political battle over who gets the first jabs has exposed fissures across our society.
But each citizen should know better. Even with vaccines, the government needs to maintain existing quarantine measures and care for patients. Errors are inevitable in the early stage of vaccine administration. The KDCA and quarantine officers as well as medical staff must get ready for unexpected mishaps in the process of inoculation.
Medical experts stress the importance of field quarantines and an increase in the number of staff at public clinics, more than half of whom are still hired on a contract basis. In the meantime, government budgets to increase hospitals devoted to infectious diseases have been halved, with politicians more engrossed in taking credit for the relatively successful mitigation campaign by the government.
The capital region had to suffer major waves of outbreaks because authorities did not pay heed to the quarantine mistakes by Daegu during the first outbreak in Korea. We may see a fourth wave even with the rollout of the vaccines.
That’s why we should closely examine how social distancing is being implemented in foreign counties where vaccinations are in progress and new patients are decreasing. We must make the most of the earlier trials and errors in countries where vaccinations have progressed considerably.
Compared with earlier outbreaks a year ago, we are placed in a situation where a malignant tumor is slowly spreading in the body. Social distancing could be likened to a lengthy cancer treatment. One or two shots of vaccines cannot entirely make the problem go away. If we let down our guard, we may face a fourth massive wave before the by-elections in April.
We are still living with the danger of Covid-19. The vaccination rate must be raised to the maximum. In the meantime, social distancing rules must not be hastily loosened. It is not over until it is over.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.