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No time for back-patting

Mar 18,2020
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Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo answers questions from lawmakers at the National Assembly on Feb. 26 about the coronavirus outbreak. [YONHAP]
Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

As the number of coronavirus infections dropped to about 70 a day from hundreds, the government is shamelessly praising itself. Last week, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo and President Moon Jae-in said that Korea is a model for the world. On March 13, the Blue House said, “French President Emmanuel Macron told Moon that the country wants to learn the Korean way of disinfection.”

If it wants to praise itself so highly, it should first take a look around the region. Taiwan, from which over 10 million people visit China every year, only had 59 patients as of Monday morning and only one died. Korea’s infections are 70 times larger than Taiwan’s.

What was its secret? Foreign media pointed to Taiwan’s bold, early quarantine measures. When the number of patients reached 10 early last month, Taipei banned all incoming travelers from China. It stopped exports of face masks starting late January. In comparison, the Korean model doesn’t look very good.

New infections have decreased here thanks mostly to the people’s active participation in keeping “social distance.” But we cannot live like this forever. Schools need to resume, as well as church services. In the capital region, 15 megachurches have over 10,000 followers each. When people return to normal life, outbreaks can begin again. In fact, outbreaks in the past often had pauses — and then came back. Cholera hit Europe in 1831, and the outbreak returned five times until the early 20th century.

Since our numbers of new infections are down, we can turn our attention to the aftermath of the outbreak. The worst-ever business confidence level and a delayed school year are serious issues. We also need to pay attention to international relations as a top priority. It is important because the country’s fate depends on it. What kind of world will come out of this pandemic?

First, experts predict a process of deglobalization. As we saw during the Middle Ages, foreigners will be treated as spreaders of deadly diseases. Each country will reinforce its own quarantine and inspection systems for incoming travelers, and approach overseas exchanges in a timid way.

Trade and foreign investment will shrink. Global companies such as Hyundai Motor have learned that sourcing components from overseas is an extremely risky business. When each country turns to supplying components domestically, Korea will suffer a critical blow due to its heavy reliance on other countries.

Second, each government will start a blame game to pass the buck to other countries. In China, rumors are already spreading that the United States spread the coronavirus. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman posted a message on Twitter saying it could have been the U.S. military that brought the coronavirus to Wuhan. However unreasonable, that conspiracy theory is spreading in China. It claims the United States prepared a biological warfare agent for years and that the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak was also caused by the United States.

Conspiracy theorists in China base their arguments on the Bush administration’s rejection of the Biological Weapons Convention, although the United States refused it because the convention could not meet its original goals.

In America, rumors spread that the outbreak started when China conducted animal experiments to weaponize a new coronavirus. According to the rumor, the disease spread to humans after a researcher in a laboratory in Wuhan sold infected animals to a market.

It is clear that the United States and China are trying to blame each other. Squeezed between the two giants, Korea will be forced to take sides. China may try to use its influence as an option in its battle against the United States. Then, the North Korean nuclear crisis will be further complicated. Now is not the time for self-praise. It is time to think about the aftermath and start preparations.