The K-quarantine debacle
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The Moon Jae-in government’s battle with Covid-19 has failed in a big way. Its flaws were bared with the rollout of game-changing vaccines. The government has been touting the supremacy of K-quarantine, or mitigation efforts against the spread of the virus. The program owed much to the national health insurance system, established from the industrialization period, massive administrative power, devoted medical professionals, and the cooperation and patience of the people. They should be all credited as national assets. But the government is boasting as if its strategy had been behind it. The price of self-delusion and over-confidence actually translated into massive economic losses and costs.
The government goes on reciting a mantra that people should “refrain from getting together and continue to wear masks as the next two weeks pose could be a turning point.” It warns of heavy punishment without exception for any businesses violating the mitigation rules. People have to endure incessant text messages about numbers of infections. After tormenting the entire population for so long, it has put the country in colossal debt after unleashing astronomical amounts of spending ahead of the April 7 by-elections under the pretext of Covid-19 relief. Yet the government shamelessly demands more patience from the public.
The biggest victims of this farce are the socially vulnerable. The mitigation regimen followed the same pattern as the steep minimum wage hikes and anti-market real estate policy. The bottom and lower-class have been pushed into a corner as a result of losses of jobs from a surge in wages and a spike in property prices that was supposed to be a decline.
The government has poured out relief funds as if the money came out of their personal pockets. Over the last year, it has handed out four rounds of disaster relief. It is even studying a fifth round of handouts to every citizen. Public debt has snowballed. As the fiscal deficit-to-GDP ratio has jumped from around 1 percent to 6 percent, national debt-to-GDP has reached 1,000 trillion won (895.3 billion).
Yet the people are in a pitiful state. The 10th largest economy in 111th in its vaccination rate. There is no sign of relief. Vaccine-producing nations are cutting back on exports of the shots, basically weaponizing vaccines. The self-congratulatory K-quarantine show has brought about this disaster. Yet the government continues to cry wolf as if another two-week stretch of endurance will do the trick.
The Financial Times highlighted the divide in Covid-19 responses, in which countries with delayed vaccine regimens are suffering from surges in infection cases — and obviously delays in their economic recovery. South Korea is among the laggards. It has to get its act together. Authorities must put priority on securing vaccines by using all possible diplomatic means.
Many countries from the U.K. to Chile have hopes of achieving herd immunity through fast progress in vaccinations. Some could be returning to a mask-free life soon. At the current rate, South Koreans could be bullied into more two-week extensions of social distancing until they go to polls to pick a new president on March 9, 2022. Voters heading to polling stations wearing masks could make international news in other parts of the world where lives already returned to normal.
The government has set a timetable for its vaccine program, but the vaccines have been held up. Korea could be even behind Japan. At least Japan is not hyping its successful containment of Covid-19. The vaccine program has been slow in Japan not because of lack of supplies, but due to red tape. The government must stop fooling the people and get to work.