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Failure’s not an option

Feb 22,2020
The Moon Jae-in administration has been utterly disappointing and unreliable in its handling of the spread of the new coronavirus over the last month. Instead of placing public health and safety first, its actions were swayed by political factors ahead of the parliamentary elections in April. Experts have repeatedly asked the government to impose stricter bans on the entry of people from China and other virus-hit locations to avoid a wider spread in the country. But the government has dilly-dallied, and the result has been a sharp spike in infections in just three days.

The numbers have been rising at a staggering pace, adding nearly 150 this week alone, including one death. The epidemic swept Daegu in the southern area and hit northern Gangwon, which means it is spreading all across the country. The military front has turned tense with a patient reported in each of three branches: the army, navy and air force. After a congregation of a religious sect in Daegu called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus became infected, five out of 15 nurses at Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo County, North Gyeongsang, became ill with the virus. The nightmare of Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2015, which put the country in a state of alarm for months, has returned.

The city of Daegu is seriously short of quarantine facilities and manpower. The city hospitals have only 54 of a total of 1,027 beds available in Korea devoted to treating patients with infectious diseases. Experts all warned the epidemic could last a long time. But authorities did not pay heed.

Even as the death toll hit above 2,000 in China, Seoul only put entry restrictions on travelers from the city of Wuhan and Hubei Province, the original epicenters of the new virus. Chinese students entered en masse for school openings in March. The government has not raised the alarm rate to the serious level even as infections more than doubled.

The government must act fast to stop the entry of Chinese people, including students. Over 14,000 Chinese students are left unsupervised around Seoul as schools lack dorm facilities to segregate them. The Ministry of Education must not leave such affairs to individual schools. Local governments and universities must act together.

The government alone cannot fight such a disease. Medical professionals and citizens must be scrupulous about hygiene and sanitization. A follower of the Shincheonji church refused to take a medical test although she had a high fever. Everyone must think of the community first.

The president must be particularly careful. He has underestimated the dangers. As result, Korea has become the most infected country after China, not counting passengers on a ship in Japan. Safety comes first. The disease control headquarters must have full authority. The government and ruling party are being tested by the epidemic. They cannot fail.