The ‘K-quarantine’ trap
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korea’s 6.5 million self-employed people are the biggest victims of the Korean-style quarantine primarily based on stringent social distancing rules. Owners of diners, restaurants, cafes, fried chicken shops and noraebang (singing rooms) in the back streets are enduring the hard times in agony. No matter how hard they struggle to survive, they have to pay rent, labor costs, credit card commissions, utility bills, franchise and delivery fees.
They have been sustaining their business through loans. They sought new loans to pay off the earlier ones, stretching their combined borrowings to 850 trillion won ($734 billion). Interest rates have just been raised and will likely go higher. They cannot easily close their businesses either, as they would have to surrender the premium they had paid to rent their shops and pay back their loans in bulk. Some of them have hit the street to protest.
The government eased the rigid social distancing guidelines slightly from this week. The capital region and other areas under the highest Level 4 rules allow a maximum six people per table, including four fully vaccinated people, at restaurants and cafes after 6 p.m. Business hours have also been extended by an hour to 10 p.m.
But the relaxed rules cannot make a difference because few young salary workers have been fully vaccinated. Lee Sung-won, secretary general for the Korea Federation of Small Merchants and Self-employed, demands that dining freedom should be extended to those vaccinated with the first jab to offer some relief to small businesses. He said more would be anguished and die from their mounting debt than from Covid-19.
How did things get so tangled up? The Moon Jae-in administration had been overly optimistic about the situation after an overwhelming victory in the April 15 parliamentary elections last year. Lee Nak-yon, then head of the ruling Democratic Party, visited the lab of Celltrion in Songdo, Incheon in October last year. He claimed Korea could be the first to combat Covid-19 if Celltrion and other Korean medical companies mass-produce its cure.
The following month, Celltrion Chairman Seo Jung-jin said Korea will be the first Covid-19 free country by spring. He argued a cure was needed more than a vaccine to combat Covid-19. In December, then-Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also visited the Cellitrion headquarters and met with Seo to encourage him and his company to become the “light of hope” for the people.
On May 15 last year, former U.S. President Donald Trump declared the Operation Wrap Special to expedite the development of Covid-19 vaccines. After deciding that vaccines would be the game-changer, European governments rushed to pre-purchase them. Korea alone stuck with cures. Former lawmaker Yoo Seung-min warned of a critical divide in the global economy between vaccine haves and have-nots, but the government did not pay heed.
Lee and Chung, two former prime ministers, merely cheered along Moon’s message. When the president invited entrepreneurs in January last year, Seo strolled on the left of the president on an equal standing with Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong on the right. They were followed by Moon’s chief of staff Noh Young-min.
While opening a bio health strategy conference in Cheongju, North Chungcheong in May last year, Moon publicly touted Seo of Celltrion for having grown his company as one of the world’s top biosimilar producers after starting the business with 50 million won, 10 years ago. In a rare move, Moon’s chief of staff Noh accompanied his boss to the May conference and his tour to the bio industry in November. Noh and Seo come from the same hometown of Cheongju and are of the same age. This is how the myth of the Korean Covid-19 cure was born.
It is not strange for the head of a bio company to pitch his company’s capability. If Korea carried out Covid-19 tests broadly and treated patients from the early stage, it might have become the world’s first Covid-19 free country. But such a miracle did not happen.
Thanks to the blind faith in the eagerness of Seo and a lack of a wider pool of information, the government failed to make the best-possible judgment on the situation. Experts at home and abroad all stressed the importance of vaccines. Yet the government did not pay attention and as a result, Korea is at the bottom among 38 OECD member nations in full vaccination rate, with just 34.6 percent.
Yet the Blue House recruited Ki Mo-ran — a professor of preventive medicine at the National Cancer Center who had refuted the urgency of vaccines — as the presidential secretary on quarantine policy.
Countries like Britain, Denmark and Singapore have shifted to a “Living with Covid-19” system. Korea still remains short of vaccines. As a result, citizens are still forced to abide by strict distancing measures.
If the self-employed, who make up one out of every four people among the country’s 27 million employed, collapse, the country could face a bigger crisis. Financial institutions will be dealt a critical blow due to a dramatic surge in loan delinquencies and the property lease market also could sink. Under such circumstances, civilian revolt could take place. The price for fantasizing about a Covid-19 free country has been cruel and dear.