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Politics must retreat

Mar 10,2020
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U.S. President Donald Trump gave up a presidential bid in 2000 partly due to his loathing of handshakes. In a book he published in 2004, he confessed to being a germaphobe. Concerns are growing in the United States that Trump may make some drastic decision, ignoring recommendations of experts, if confirmed cases and deaths from the new coronavirus, Covid-19, increase in the United States.

As Korea has a large number of infections, 106 countries are either barring Koreans from entering or putting tough restrictions on their entry, like forced quarantines. In such circumstances, Trump may soon institute a full entry ban on travelers from Korea. It will be a nightmare if we cannot visit the United States — an ally with which we share the values of democracy, market economics and human rights such as freedom of movement. China, the epicenter of the outbreak, ridiculed Korea for its slow preventive measures against the virus, instead of offering an apology.

However, Korea is not going to lose its reputation as a result of the infections. After a 35-year-old Chinese woman showed symptoms of pneumonia shortly after arriving at Incheon International Airport on Jan. 19, our public health authorities enforced a test on her. The next day, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced that she was the first case of infection in Korea and raised its alert level from management to caution. After she was cured at a Korean hospital, she wrote a thank you letter to the medical staff, calling them heroes.

The World Health Organization called Korea a model country for quarantines. In fact, Korea is an advanced country that can conduct 10,000 coronavirus tests a day. Many people are demanding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States get its act together and work as efficiently as Korea.

Things started going wrong when the Korean government ignored medical experts. The Moon Jae-in administration chose to ban the entry of travelers from Wuhan — not from all parts of China — in order to placate Beijing. When that minimal restriction was instituted, 5 million Chinese had already left Wuhan. If an entry ban had been imposed on people from all parts of China, the virus would not have spread as it has and Moon would not be accused of behaving like “the president of China.” Beijing even told Seoul that “disinfection is more important than diplomacy.”

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, mom-and-pop stores across the country don’t have any customers. They are forced to rely on loan sharks for capital. A head of a financial group recently told me that “banks can offer 20 trillion won [$16.6 billion] loans to the cash-strapped self-employed if the government deposits 2 trillion won of its budget in the Korea Credit Guarantee Fund [KCGF].”

But when the government drew up a 11.7 trillion won supplementary budget bill, it only offered 96 billion won to the KCGF. That will allow private banks to offer only 1 trillion won in loans to the self-employed. Do we want a health crisis to develop into a financial crisis? And yet, the government allocated 2 trillion won for free coupons to low-income people to stimulate consumption. While the government encourages the public to maintain “social distance” to help curb the virus, it is urging them to go shop at markets. That is contradictory. The government should listen to medical experts.

Taiwan made a preemptive move to minimize the outbreak. Taipei created a central command center to fight the virus even before it had a confirmed patient, and named Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, a dentist, as its head. Taiwan completely banned the entry of people from China and started quarantine measures for suspected patients. The country banned exports of medical-grade face masks and stopped panic buying by creating a system where the people can buy a certain number of masks with their identification cards. Chen became a national hero, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s approval ratings skyrocketed.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in Korea in 2003, the Roh Moo-hyun administration successfully fought it. Korea had only three infections and no deaths. When some said the government measures violated basic human rights, Roh said, “Protecting the people’s health is the best human rights measures.” Taiwan’s current measures are similar to Roh’s.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the administration are doing everything to attack the Shincheonji church. DP Chairman Lee Hae-chan, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae are leading the witch hunt. They want to blame followers of the sect for their failed measures. It is true that the sect played a key role in the spread of the virus. But the government must respect the KCDC’s opinion that followers will hide if the government comes down too hard on them.

Shincheonji leader Lee Man-hee called the outbreak an act of the devil. In a press conference, he wore a watch supposedly given to him by President Park Geun-hye, and bowed twice. Two days later, former President Park issued a message to the public from prison. “I feel heartbroken” about the outbreak, she wrote, and urged the conservatives to unite with the main opposition at the center. United Future Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn enthusiastically welcomed her letter. Who invited Park into this mess? The ruling party and the administration started the political game first, when it should have countered the crisis with science.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Korea’s GDP per capita — when based on purchasing power parity — was $41,001 in 2017, higher than Japan’s $40,827. Korea has excellent medical experts. “There is no panic here; no rioting, no fearful mobs […] Instead there is a stoic calm and quiet,” said an ABC News reporter from Daegu. Korea is strong.

When public safety is the top priority and the situation is controlled by experts, Korea can become an advanced country and restore its vigor. Politics must retreat from the frontline, where the lives of the people and the survival of the country is at stake.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 9, Page 31