Shots help Moon

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Shots help Moon

Seo Seung-wook
The author is a national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Public anxiety deepened in April and early May when Korea was running short of Covid-19 vaccines. Senior citizens in particular got angry after their scheduled inoculations were delayed. Antipathy towards the government was unfolded in many ways. One of them was the rumor that diplomats in the Foreign Ministry received special treatment in the government’s vaccination program. They had to receive Pfizer vaccines, as the United States wanted, ahead of President Moon Jae-in’s trip to Washington for his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on May 21. His entourage was not fixed at that time, but they could get a Pfizer shot if they wanted, the theory went. I heard such stories myself from senior officials from the government and the National Assembly.
Some of them claimed that even diplomats who did not accompany the president on the trip got a jab. Others mentioned specific names and vaccination dates of diplomats who received a Pfizer shot “even when older people can’t get it.” Another fumed at the privilege of diplomats which was unthinkable for ordinary citizens.
Whether the rumors are true or not, the episodes testify to the agitation for vaccines over the last couple of months.
Public distrust in the AstraZeneca vaccines was also deepening at the time. A famous doctor with expertise in infectious diseases was invited to a lecture for government employees. Asked if the vaccine is really safe, he recommended them not to get it for safety reasons, the conspiracy theory goes. I cannot tell if that’s fake news, but the public pays keen attention to such stories.
Koreans showed a cold reaction to an “incompetent administration that could not even bring in vaccines to protect people’s lives.” As a result, the vaccination issue was the best weapon the opposition People Power Party (PPP) could use to push the government into a corner after Korea lagged far behind other countries in implementing vaccination programs. The PPP criticized the liberal administration for creating a “disaster after bragging so much about its quarantine measures.” The attack worked well as no citizens believed the country could reach herd immunity by November, as promised by the government. The vaccine fiasco played a big part in the ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) crushing defeat in the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan, though it was overshadowed by the government’s real estate policy failures and the LH real estate scandal. Political pundits said that if herd immunity is not achieved by November, the PPP will surely win in the next presidential election on May 9.
The mood is changing gradually thanks to the Pfizer vaccinations from May 22. Another factor in the surprising turnaround in the people’s reaction is Biden’s promise to offer 1 million doses of Janssen vaccines, which will directly go to soldiers and reserve forces in Korea. The Moon administration raised its first-jab vaccination target to 14 million people in the first half of the year. Other variables such as virus variants remain, but medical professionals cautiously project the day of herd immunity to be advanced a bit if the current inoculation pace continues.
Now the PPP is worried about the dramatic reversal. Its supporters plan to refrain from their attacks on the government for the delay in vaccine procurements. They started to wonder what if the herd immunity the government promised will be achieved by November.
The opposition has bitter memories of the past. After the outbreak of the pandemic in February last year, the PPP hoped for a long-awaited victory in the April 15 parliamentary elections two month later, but faced a crushing defeat due to voters yearning for a stable government at a time of crisis. That’s a nightmare for the PPP and its supporters.
That’s also a warning for them to not get engrossed in opposition for opposition’s sake.
In a Blue House meeting with President Moon last week, the opposition leader was bent on attacking the commander-in-chief on all fronts. His remarks were full of pointed criticisms against the government, but were devoid of inner strength, competence and insight to take power next time. Ahead of the party convention slated for June 11, contenders for the leadership of the embattled party competitively claim, “I am the only candidate who can establish a united anti-Moon front” before the March 9, 2022 presidential election. Their supporters demand competence, not blind opposition, from them. But the contestants fall short of their expectations.
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