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Deaths of the socially weak

Mar 05,2020
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Citizens queuing up for face masks in front of a convenience store in Daegu, where the coronavirus infections are centered, in February. [NEWS1]
Kim Chang-gyu
The author is an economics editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Here are some simple facts about Korea’s first patient who died of the new coronavirus: a male, 63 years old, 42 kilograms (93 pounds), hospitalized for over 20 years, no known family or friends. The patient died on Feb. 19 after spending more than two decades at the closed psychiatry ward of Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo County, North Gyeongsang. He was posthumously diagnosed with the coronavirus. Without knowing his own illness, he died — without a single relative or companion to grieve his death.

A 55-year-old female who was also hospitalized at Daenam had to transfer to a bigger hospital equipped with a special negative pressure room when her pneumonia symptoms worsened. As she left Daenam, she was quoted by hospital staff as saying, “It feels so good to go out.” As she had spent a long time in a closed ward, a short trip to a nearby hospital in the ambulance likely offered her a sweet taste of freedom — one that would be her last. She arrived at her new hospital in Busan about two hours later but died shortly after. She was the second coronavirus patient to die in Korea.

By Tuesday, seven people who had been hospitalized in a closed ward of Daenam died of the coronavirus. Most patients at Daenam have no family or friends except for the hospital staff looking after them. They are the most vulnerable of Korea’s vulnerable. How did a virus from so far away reach such isolated people in the small, secluded village of Cheongdo?

The phenomenon epitomizes the failure of Korea’s preventive measures against the disease. The virus was first reported in Wuhan in Hubei Province in China late last year, after which it spread throughout China in January. But it was only in early February that the Korean government banned travelers from Hubei Province. Before the Chinese government imposed a lockdown of this area, about 5 million people had already fled. That means some Chinese citizens who contracted the disease in Wuhan could spread it. Korea has yet to impose a full entry ban on all travelers from China.

Patients at the closed wards of Daenam Hospital lived in groups and slept on floors, not beds. The isolated wards make it difficult for a virus to penetrate the environment, but once the coronavirus got in, it spread like wildfire. Doctors assumed the patients were highly vulnerable to the disease due to their low immunity level as a result of their extended hospitalization. Most of nearly 100 patients hospitalized there eventually tested positive for the virus.

The Korean government repeatedly failed to deliver the right preventive measures on time. At the beginning of the outbreak, it allowed Chinese nationals to arrive in Korea. Despite the growing public demand for face masks in Korea, the government allowed exports of the masks to China. When infections began to skyrocket in Daegu and North Gyeongsang — and locals panicked about a critical lack of face masks — the government scrambled for solutions. Authorities warned stern punishments against any attempts to stock up on face masks, but it was too late. The government’s recent announcement to sell nearly 5 million masks — or about half the nation’s total daily productions — at local post offices each day only added more confusion to public mayhem.

Senior citizens, who live alone and have mobility impairments and don’t know how to use digital devices, are unable to buy necessities online like other consumers, let alone wait in a long line. That’s a serious issue because there were several coronavirus patients who died at home or even before reaching the hospital.
Korea’s disadvantaged people are paying the price of the government’s policy failures despite the Moon Jae-in administration’s pledge to take their side no matter what. If they die, who will compensate for their lost lives? The key to crisis management starts with trust. Is the Moon administration truly offering that ?