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[MAGNIFYING GLASS] Long lines and shortages are symptoms of a larger problem

Mar 06,2020
At the break of dawn on Thursday, the day after the government announced that it was supplying 3.5 million masks per day at pharmacies, post offices and NongHyup’s Hanaro Mart branches, I took off to visit every single drug store in the neighborhood and the post office.

I even peeked into every convenience store in my path to see if there were any masks left on the racks.

When asked, every single pharmacist said they didn’t get any supplies, adding that they doubted more stock would arrive anytime soon.

My early morning venture turned out to be a fool’s errand.

Pharmacists said they weren’t sure when they would be receiving their supplies, which left me not only surprised, but also frustrated as I walked back home empty-handed.

It felt like a gut punch to my blind naivete in trusting the government.

The situation only got worse as days went by, with hordes of people lining up wherever the masks were on sale, almost reminiscent of a wartime panic. Elderly people and even people with clear physical illnesses stood in the cold for hours just to get their hands on the five masks that were allowed per person.

Contrary to the government’s announcements, it was clear that the rollout of the measures was clueless and disoriented.

A few days later, with public anger exploding, President Moon Jae-in issued a rare apology for the debacle.

Yet it seemed to have not learned its lesson from last week’s mistakes.

The problem has only gotten worse in the last couple of days. The government appears to be crumbling as it attempts to coordinate within its own organization.

Government officials on Tuesday afternoon told reporters they would announce measures that would secure stable supplies of masks by Wednesday morning. Later in the day, those promises were abruptly rescinded.

Early Thursday morning, the government indicated it would make another announcement at 9:30 a.m. but postponed the press conference 10 minutes before its scheduled start until that afternoon.

Some government departments failed to coordinate their messaging. An initial proposal was reported in the news media before it could be finalized, prompting fresh confusion.

Although the articles were pulled offline shortly thereafter, it offered a clear demonstration of why the public’s trust in this government has recently been fraying.

In times of crisis, especially when it involves life-and-death situations, swift action and tight coordination within the government are required, with no room for mistakes. Even my daughter in the third grade would know this.

Otherwise, chaos erupts.

This has been evident in past crises, from the sunken Sewol ferry, in which nearly 304 people died in 2014, to the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, outbreak, in which 186 people were infected and 38 died.

In both cases, not only did the government fail to act swiftly and in a coordinated fashion, but the lack of transparency and communication had fatal consequences.

In the Sewol ferry case, early misinformation that all 388 high school students on board had been rescued caused crucial delays in the rescue operations.

Now the Moon government is being tested on its ability to manage a crisis. This outbreak will determine whether his administration is efficient and effective in securing the public’s safety.

Credit should be given to the Moon administration for aggressive actions that included mass testing of suspected coronavirus patients and providing daily status briefings for the public.

Other countries, including the United States, have recognized Korea’s aggressive testing measures as exemplary.

Moon’s administration should also be commended for its efforts at the beginning of the outbreak, in which it tracked down and disclosed the areas where confirmed patients visited. Those measures helped to tightly control the outbreak during its early stages, keeping the virus from promulgating rapidly. The government quarantined those who may have been exposed and limited the inflow of possible carriers.

But the repeated mishaps that the government has shown since last week are undermining its previous efforts, leading some to question the government’s competence.

This is not simply about failing to properly supply masks to the public.

The long lines of people waiting for supplies are just symptoms of the escalating fear resulting from the government’s failures.

Although it was in a different context, Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki is right on one thing. Everything is about confidence. And it is time that this government earns the public’s confidence through competence.

BY LEE HO-JEONG [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]