A foreseeable crisis at seaA cluster of Covid-19 infections among sailors of the Cheonghae unit aboard a Navy destroyer dispatched to the waters off eastern Africa was anticipated long ago. Yet our military did not consider the possibility of such infections. When the 4,400-ton warship left for the Gulf of Aden on Feb. 8, the government did not have vaccines. But after the naval unit embarked on a peacekeeping mission in the volatile area, the government began getting vaccines. Then, it should have vaccinated those sailors first.
If the government had acted fast, the destroyer could have gotten vaccines from the U.S. Navy operating around the Gulf of Aden. In Bahrain, the U.S. 5th Fleet has a base commanding anti-piracy activities in the waters. President Moon Jae-in also could have asked for help from U.S. President Joe Biden during a summit in the White House on May 21. At the time, Biden promised to offer vaccines for 550,000 soldiers in Korea. But our military and government have been sitting on their hands.
The Cheonghae unit calls at Salalah Port, Oman, every two to three weeks for refueling and getting other supplies. In the process, our sailors could get infected at any time. Oman’s per capita Covid-19 infection rate is 14 times higher than Korea’s. As naval ships employ an integrated ventilation system at normal times, infections can spread in the tight spaces quickly, as confirmed in cluster infections among sailors of four U.S. aircraft carriers, including the USS Theodore Roosevelt, in April.
Nevertheless, our Joint Chiefs of Staff ignored possible contingencies from the coronavirus at sea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff brushed off the danger as if they were bystanders. As a result, 82 percent of 301 sailors and 29 out of 30 officers aboard the destroyer, including the captain, tested positive for the virus. They cannot run the ship anymore.
Basically, the crisis has its roots in our military authorities’ lax discipline. And yet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are reluctant to own responsibility or feel a sense of crisis.
They reportedly ordered the Navy to publicize Operation Oasis, which is aimed at bringing the sailors aboard the ship back home safely. We are dumbfounded at their crude attempts to divert public attention.
The case of a warship returning home after a cluster of infections among sailors could be the first of its kind in history. How is this different, however, from previous debacles in which the enemy managed to penetrate the tense inland and maritime borders? And how is it different from the Air Force’s methodical attempt to cover up sexual assaults in barracks? The military and government must stop repeating such mishaps. Above all, they must first apologize to the sailors and their families.