A long way to go before normal

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A long way to go before normal

Choi Jae-wook
The author is a professor of preventive medicine at Korea University’s College of Medicine.

Koreans have become numb about the pandemic, and Covid-19 is no longer at the center of our attention. Despite North Korea facing an outbreak of the disease, and warnings in many countries about resurgences and risks of new strains, the pandemic feels like something from another country.

Koreans are more interested in economic recovery, not disease control. According to a Hankook Research survey released earlier this month, 57 percent of the respondents said economic recovery is a higher priority than Covid-19 prevention and control, the first time that the figure went over 50 percent. In August 2020, 85 percent of the people said the top priority should be Covid-19 prevention and control, but the figure dropped to 38 percent in the latest poll.

In a democratic country, public opinion is important. But from the perspective of a medical expert, some political campaigns and the last administration’s hasty policy to ease social distancing measures by stressing unreasonably optimistic forecasts were wrong and unscientific.

During the Moon Jae-in administration, the government announced that we were at the end of a long tunnel and that Covid-19 was a disease that could be managed and controlled when a turning point was reached, baffling the experts. The current situation is not much different. People still die of the disease each day. I want to stress clearly that the pandemic has not ended and is still ongoing.

It will be hard to maintain tough social distancing measures, which cause enormous economic losses. But lifting the measures does not mean that we can give up disease prevention and control. The government must present a more effective alternative to prevent and control infections. To this end, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has presented a new policy concept of “scientific prevention and control and medical response,” which is the key phrase in the new government’s 100-day roadmap for emergency countermeasures for the pandemic.

Some specific tasks in the 100-day roadmap include a nationwide sample survey for Covid-19 antibody formation, analysis of the effectiveness of social distancing and creation of improved plans. Moreover, the roadmap includes a Covid-19 big data platform of epidemiological examinations and medical information and policy research using artificial intelligence. As a part of the medical response plan, the new government has decided to operate a fast-track system to quickly administer treatment to high-risk populations and push forward a policy to strengthen medical response capabilities.

But the system for big data alone requires years to build. Furthermore, the limits of science will exist even if scientific research will be used as a basis for a policy decision, and it is fundamentally impossible to resolve the uncertainty of a policy.

Building a nationwide medical infrastructure and expanding medical manpower were challenges the government and the medical community have worked hard to resolve over the past decades but they remain unresolved. In order for the 100-day roadmap to be something more than a political slogan, the public health authorities must remain alert.

The most urgent issue will be preparing for a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, as waves could come every four to five months. The government must start reviewing its readiness for a resurgence this summer and possible appearance of new strains. To this end, the decision-making governance process of the Covid-19 policy must be revised as soon as possible. The government must remove the existing post of the presidential secretary for disease control and prevention affairs and dismantle the Covid-19 Recovery Committee under the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

Instead, an official to oversee infectious disease crisis response should be newly named by the president, and the Health and Welfare Ministry’s clinical panel on infectious diseases and the expert committee under the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency should be transformed quickly into an independent organ of experts. The government must also establish a center to quickly offer proper vaccine damage payments.

The welfare and health minister post is still empty although it is an important position in charge of Covid-19 prevention and control as well as public health. We are concerned that the public health sector will be treated lightly despite the ongoing pandemic. Expectations and concerns are both high for Peck Kyong-ran, the newly appointed commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. There is a long way to go to recover our lives and normalize medical practices in Korea.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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