No more torture by hope
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A sushi restaurant in Jongno, downtown Seoul, keeps business open beyond 10 p.m., the mandatory closure time under current social distancing rules. The district office will soon issue a penalty. But the owner is not worried as he could be off the hook after the March 9 presidential election. Ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung vowed to ease business operating hour rules for the self-employed if elected. Yoon Suk-yeol from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) also promised to allow around-the-clock business.
Both candidates are challenging the government’s pandemic guidelines. But the voters welcome their promises. Candidates of minority parities — Ahn Cheo-soo of People’s Party (PP) and Sim Sang-jeong of Justice Party (JP) — have also been critical of the government’s measures. Whoever wins, the system for dealing with the pandemic will undergo sweeping changes.
Looking back, no country has been so obligating to government mitigation rules as Korea no matter how harsh and inconsistent they had been. Even when daily cases leveled out at two-digit numbers, everyone went on with facemasks on indoors and outdoors. They faithfully followed the rules even when the number of people at a table in a cafe or restaurant changed from two to four, six, eight, 10 and 12.
As many as 140,000 were tested positive on Monday. The cumulative figure has surpassed 3 million. From this week, members of a family with someone testing positive in the house are free to move about if they are not infected. In theory, mitigation must toughen when infection cases increase and ease when they fall. New York State has lifted the mandate to have masks on indoors from Feb. 10, when daily cases came down to 180,000 from 900,000.
Korea is going in the opposite direction. When the spread has nearly doubled per week, authorities suddenly gave up. They have thrown in the towel, although critically-ill and death numbers have exceeded the count during the Delta wave. One doctor in the field said, “It feels like letting the people all get infected.” The liability will fall on the incoming president.
What has gone wrong?
The government, people and medical professionals each had their roles to play in the fight against an unprecedented pandemic. The onus fell particularly hard on the people. On Feb. 25, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said that if not for the cooperation with the people who had kept to mask-wearing and self-hygiene and obliged with social distancing rules and vaccinations, the country could not have survived so far. He is right. People complied with the annoying ritual of swiping QR code or jolting down their IDs as well as vaccination certificates every time they entered a public facility. The government stumbled every time it introduced a new rule. It put people in a greater health danger during critical times. Many are still struggling with their phones to find a place to get treatment. Lack of coordination among government offices also worsened the affair as seen in the case of the outbreak in the Chunghae naval contingent during their mission battling with Somali pirates.
The government also had been poor in communicating with the medical sector. It flip-flopped on policies without coordinating with professionals in the field. The president tasked an irrelevant figure as the secretary in charge of pandemic policy in the Blue House. Expertise from the experience of other epidemics like SARS, swine flu and MERS was ignored largely because the experts worked under conservative presidents. Follies from members of the same lineage went uncensored.
A seasoned expert in infectious disease observed that Korea contained Covid-19 relatively well in early period because of the experience with MERS. But the government was all self-congratulatory about its response. Yet it frequently responded too slowly to new developments and made all kinds of excuses for their dilly-dallying.
It also often raised hopes too fast. On Feb. 13, 2020, President Moon Jae-in declared Covid-19 would soon be over while meeting with business leaders. In July last year, he vowed to execute tougher mitigation rules for a “short and concentrated” campaign to end the battle. But the Covid-19 wave is ever worsening two years since the outbreak. Moon could have been trying to comfort the people by giving them a hope to return to normal lives. Navy fighter pilot James Stockdale who returned home after spending 7 years and a half in prison of torture said that those who confronted the reality with discipline survived whereas the so-called optimists who had kept up hope for release died of broken hearts.
A new leader must learn from past mistakes. Authorities have been harsh on those who were out of compliance. One debt-ridden cafe owner was even raided by police in December for keeping his business open beyond 9pm. How authorities will react to resistant businesses ahead of the election will have to be seen.
The Covid-19 situation won’t suddenly ease after the election. But the last two years of intimidation and wishful thinking has been too agonizing. People must have some air to breath so that they can muster energy to endure the ongoing battle.