+ A

Lawmakers put differences aside to fight outbreak

Moon to meet ruling, opposition leaders at Assembly on Friday
Feb 27,2020
President Moon Jae-in will meet ruling and opposition party leaders at the National Assembly Friday to seek multipartisan support in combating the coronavirus outbreak across Korea, announced the Blue House on Wednesday.

Main opposition United Future Party (UFP) Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn accepted the meeting, saying he would use the occasion to slam the government for its “misguided” quarantine policies that targeted Daegu rather than people coming from China.

The National Assembly on Wednesday also reconvened to pass revisions to three disease prevention laws at a plenary session, following a two-day shutdown after it was discovered an infected person attended a parliamentary forum last week.

Three UFP lawmakers who organized the forum tested negative for the virus. The revisions passed nearly unanimously Wednesday concern the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, Quarantine Act and Medical Service Act.

The revised infectious disease prevention act mandates the government - at times of risk of the spread of an infectious disease - freely provide face masks to the public vulnerable to infections, such as toddlers, elementary school children and people 65 and over.

The law also forbids the export of medicines and medical equipment like face masks and hand sanitizer under such circumstances. Medical facilities in Korea are now required to check whether suspected patients have traveled abroad and more qualified government employees have been designated as epidemiological investigators. Any person who refuses to comply with a government mandated health test can face a fine of up to 3 million won ($2,300).

The changes to the Medical Service Act are designed to strengthen the government’s monitoring of the spread of diseases across the country. Medical facilities have been granted greater autonomy in terms of determining when to report data to the government, but punishment for facilities that violate public health regulations have been strengthened as well.

The Quarantine Act has also been amended to allow the health minister to request the Justice Ministry bar entry to all foreigners coming from a country where infectious disease cases have been reported.

The legislature additionally agreed to form a special parliamentary committee of 18 lawmakers to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, to be chaired by ruling Democratic Party (DP) Representative Kim Jin-pyo.

The speed at which the normally deadlocked National Assembly passed these revisions speaks to the alarm felt by lawmakers as the number of coronavirus cases in the country spiked in recent days, particularly in the regions of Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

This did not, however, end partisan bickering in the legislature on Wednesday, which centered around a remark made by the DP’s main spokesman, Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo, on Tuesday that Daegu should be placed under “blockade” to prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of the country.

Though Moon and ruling party leaders tried to douse the flames by saying the word “blockade” denoted strengthened quarantine efforts, the UFP accused the government of discriminating against the people of Daegu while leaving the door open for potential contaminants from China. Hong stepped down as party spokesman on Wednesday, saying he was taking responsibility for his comment.

Though a majority of Korea’s coronavirus cases have been linked to secondary spreaders associated with the Daegu branch of the controversial Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the UFP has fixated on putting the blame for Korea’s coronavirus crisis on the Moon administration’s reluctance to place an entry ban on visitors from China.

Hwang on Monday even appeared to defend the religious sect, which has been accused of undermining the government’s quarantine efforts with its secretive behavior, by saying it was wrong to place blame on a “certain religious group.”

A number of leading DP lawmakers Wednesday slammed Hwang for this comment, saying the Shincheonji sect should not be defended since its members had hurt the lives and health of others under the guise of religious freedom.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]