Tragedy of the commons

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Tragedy of the commons

Lee Sang-eon
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


Hong Nam-ki: We are procuring additional vaccines through diplomatic channels.

Chung Jin-suk: The people do not believe what the government says.

Hong: You’ve got to believe me.

Chung: Don’t force us. Stop a torture by hope!

Hong: This is not a ‘hope torture’!

This exchange took place between Hong Nam-ki, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, and Chung Jin-suk, a five-term lawmaker from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), in a parliamentary hearing on April 19. Hong, who was acting prime minister, used the famous quote, “You’ve got to believe me (entirely)!” from the popular JTBC drama Sky Castle, where a female college admissions expert demands upper-class wives have blind faith in her professional ways if they really want to get their children into top universities.

Many Koreans believed the Moon Jae-in administration at that moment. But it didn’t take long until they found out the government was crying wolf once again.

About two weeks earlier, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol held a press conference on his 100th day in office. He said that procuring additional vaccines was the proudest thing he did after taking office. He said the vaccine program would pan out smoothly as the government acquired many more vaccines for the second half than it did in the first. Kwon heads a government task force for vaccine purchases. Two months into the second half, however, the country still suffers a critical shortage of supplies.

Presiding over a cabinet meeting Tuesday on behalf of the prime minister, who is on summer vacation, Hong ordered the government to urge Moderna to supply vaccines quickly and use diplomatic channels to achieve the goal of giving first shots to 36 million before the Chuseok holiday in September. After reassuring the people four months ago, Hong is now scolding government officials for failing to get vaccines. He is a typical horrible boss-type who takes credit for all the good and blames subordinates for everything that goes wrong.

While unveiling real estate measures with no essence on July 28, Hong spoke of the “tragedy of the commons,” an economic problem in which individuals have access to a shared resource and act in their own interest at the expense of others. He was more or less blaming the people and their selfishness for the mess in the housing market caused by his repeated policy failures.

The tragedy of the commons is actually being witnessed in vaccine policy. Say, a common land is available to all. When the field is rich, everyone will bring their cows and sheep for grazing. After overgrazing, no one will come. If the land is not watched and taken care of, it will become barren.

When there is good news on vaccine procurement, the prime minister, deputy prime minister and the health minister proudly announce it. Even President Moon Jae-in joined the chorus to show off the moment of his conversing with the Moderna CEO in a videoconference. But when the plan does not go smoothly, the president and senior government officials turn the other way and blame others. This is how the tragedy of the commons has taken place on the vaccine front.

Korea was once proud of its faster pace of vaccination than Japan’s. But Japan has already fully vaccinated 30 percent of its people, double Korea’s rate. Japan has a minister in charge of the vaccine program. When Moderna supplies became delayed, he announced the country will be receiving the same amount from Pfizer. The minister is Taro Kono, a heavyweight politician from the Liberal Democratic Party who served as foreign and defense minister. He comes first in polls as the candidate to become the next prime minister.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May appointed Yuli Edelstein, most recently the Speaker of the Knesset, as the health minister in charge of vaccines. U.S. government documents stipulate that the health and defense secretaries take responsibility for vaccine policy. The health department decides how many vaccines are needed and the defense department, with greater experience in procurement of strategic goods, carries out the orders.

Korea’s vaccine policy has become a tragedy due to ambiguity in responsibility and authority. The tragedy is ongoing as a result.
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