Hogging hospital beds

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Hogging hospital beds

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Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The deadly Ebola virus epidemic killed over 17,000 in West Africa in early 2014. People died from severe vomiting, diarrhea, and internal or external bleeding. The disease had a fatality rate of 40 percent due to a lack of adequate treatment. But what cost the most lives of Africans during that time was the collapse of the medical system.

Hospital staff, beds and all medical resources went to Ebola patients, leaving other sick people to unnecessarily die. Deaths from malaria increased by 10,900 from the previous year. In Africa, many die from malaria, measles, pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrition or while giving birth. Experts think fatalities from non-Ebola illnesses during the time were even greater than those killed by the virus.

Korea may be in a similar danger. The new coronavirus (officially, Covid-19) has penetrated local communities, meaning more people are getting infected with the virus in country rather than overseas. Since the symptoms are mild or even can go unnoticed — and are highly contagious at the early stage of infection — Covid-19 could soon affect the entire country.

It is a serious misjudgment if the government thinks the problem can be contained by sealing off Daegu and North Gyeongsang, where the bulk of infections are centered. That wrong conclusion could be reached from selective testing of people who attended a Shincheonji church in Daegu, the fourth largest city in Korea. If authorities carried out tests broadly, the map of infections would be quite different.

There is a standard response to infectious diseases. First comes lockdowns and isolation. A contaminated area is sealed off and patients are isolated from others except for medical staff. The Chinese government chose an extreme lockdown to contain the virus that initially broke out in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The second step is intensive care for those who fell seriously ill. Japan responded lightly to those with mild symptoms.

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Medical staff, dispatched to the Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center to help its doctors and nurses with coronavirus patients, take a break. [KYUNGPOOK NATIONAL UNIVERSITY CHILGOK HOSPITAL]

Korea located and quarantined people who tested positive regardless of the seriousness of the illness. It did not count hospital beds or medical manpower. As a result, people with light symptoms occupied hospital beds, including in intensive care units. In the meantime, those seriously ill got less care than they would normally.

A complete lockdown as in China is unthinkable in a democracy like Korea. A ruling party spokesman got in trouble for floating the idea of locking down Daegu. Also, there is no way to force people under self-quarantine to stay indoors.

We must find other means than uniformly tracking down patients and isolating them. Hospital beds are scarce and medical staff cannot work round the clock. It is foolish to waste all the resources as if this was a 100-meter race, when it’s actually a marathon.

The United States and Japan conduct tests when people show a high fever, coughing and sore throats for a lengthy period. Some accuse the United States of trying to keep infection numbers low ahead of the November presidential election — and Japan doing the same ahead of the Olympics. But there is a more practical reason for the countries’ approach. If all medical resources go to coronavirus patients, other sick people suffer.

A modern society faces numerous threats. If medical care is entirely focused on virus patients, other emergency cases like heart attacks could be ignored. We must reassess our strategy to fight a long battle against Covid-19.

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