Time to return to normal

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Time to return to normal

Jeon Byung-yul
The author, a former director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is head of the Graduate School of Health Industry at Cha University.

“When I think about patients waiting for surgery, I want to run to them right away but I can’t,” texted a surgeon who tested positive for Covid-19. As Omicron cases surged, the shortage of medical staff due to the illness was more serious than the shortage of hospital beds.

The Act on Infectious Disease Prevention and Control classifies Covid-19 as a Class 1 infectious disease. So in principle, hospitalization is required for patients. However, as over 200,000 people are diagnosed daily, it is difficult to hospitalize them all. It’s not even easy to adhere to self-quarantine guidelines. Food and medicine have to be delivered just like in the early days of the pandemic. As a result, an increasing number of patients with light symptoms don’t even bother isolating themselves. Some suggest that Covid-19 should be lowered to Class 4, the same as influenza.

The initial disease control system to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by categorizing it as Class 1 does not work anymore. And yet, some medical experts still make us anxious by warning that as the peak is yet to come, easing public health measures could aggravate the situation and strain the medical system, especially if a stronger variant appears.

Shortly before Russia’s invasion, the accumulated number of Covid-19 patients in Ukraine was 5 million. But a war is not waged by isolating patients, as defending the nation is a more urgent issue. We are not at war, but have too many challenges.

First, the infected are different from patients. Not all infected people become patients with symptoms. Nearly everyone infected with measles become patients, but only 5 percent of polio infections are accompanied by symptoms. We get vaccinated to avoid getting sick when infected.

Moreover, a PCR test yields a positive result if there is a single piece of inactive virus. This method is useful at the early stage of a pandemic as it helps find the source of infection and prevent the spread when the outbreak is small and limited to a certain area. However, since everyone can be exposed now, such tests are counterproductive when tracing is not done.

Second, the social costs are huge. As the number of deaths increases quickly, families of Covid-19 victims cannot find mortuaries or crematoria to take their loved ones. In this situation, delaying the recovery makes social and economic costs grow tremendously. There are many side effects such as losses suffered by small businesses and the unemployed, as well as the loss of in-person education opportunity for students.

Third, it is hard to find other developed countries that have implemented strong distancing measures as long as Korea. The developed countries didn’t lift measures without any grounds. I’ve never heard the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) officially announce any analysis or lessons of Covid-19 strategy from other countries. Of course, it is scientific to decide disease control policy based on regular antibody test results. But it is also scientific to make a reasonable decision based on infections by age, serious cases, deaths, vaccinations and medical system response capacity.

New infectious diseases like SARS, swine flu and MERS are repeated every few years. But they didn’t cause pain and fatigue for two years like Covid-19. Bigger burdens in the future are piling up the losses we already know. The Covid-19 crisis will not end with only the sacrifice of a certain group. The pandemic will end when we all go back to normal by sharing pain to a certain degree. Free individuals’ wise choices should be highlighted rather than coercion. We need courage to get through the darkness.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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