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Pres. Park must lead MERS response to prevent national disaster

Pres. Park must lead MERS response to prevent national disaster

Posted June. 04, 2015 07:28,   


Presiding over a private-public sector emergency review meeting on MERS outbreaks on Wednesday, President Park Geun-hye said, “A professional taskforce should be formed to analyze the origin and transmission routes from the beginning, and inform them to the public.” The emergency meeting was called by President Park in person as many as 14 days after the first MERS patient was reported on May 20. It is regrettable to see that the president belatedly took action in person only after the number of patients hit 30, with at least 1,354 people forced to quarantine.

Some parts of Korean society seem to be entering a state of panic. When the news that the Public Safety and Security Ministry reportedly said, “As for new influenza epidemic (in 2009 and 2010), the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters was launched when the disease spread to across the nation and about 3 million people were infected. Critics expressed anger, saying, “Will the government learn and take the necessary steps only when 3 million patients are reported?” More than 230 elementary schools and kindergartens have been temporarily closed, while events including concerts are being canceled. In an area in Gyeonggi Province, the number of students with symptoms such as high fever and coughing is reported to have surpassed 1,400. If a situation where people’s economic and social activities are hampered for an extended period of time, it constitutes a state of national emergency.

While major foreign media outlets are reporting that tertiary infection of MERS is an "unusual incident," foreigners are cancelling their trips to Korea en masse. Due to a Korean citizen who entered China by lying his suspected MERS symptoms, anti-Korea sentiment in China and Hong Kong is escalating. It is feared that the image and national credibility of Korea, one of some 10 largest economies in the world, will end up being tarnished.

The government has classified the current situation as "caution" among the four levels of disease warnings, namely, attention, caution, alert and serious, and appointed the health and welfare minister as the head of the central incident response headquarters, but has only earned criticism that the measure is sloppy and inadequate. Due to the characteristics of "infectious disease," the government must establish a close, systematic cooperation system between government administration and home affairs, defense, education, foreign affairs ministries as well as economy-related ministries, but the Public Safety and Security Ministry and the presidential office called and organized a working-level response meeting with officials from related ministries and a response team, only after President Park instructed her administration "to mobilize all national public health capacity" on Monday. It only happened soon after two people died of MERS and a patient who had been infected through tertiary transmission was reported.

When the Sewol ferry carrying 304 passengers was sinking into water right before people’s eyes in April last year, the government failed in early response, and lost ‘golden time’ for saving lives. It is lamentable that Korea has come to see the situation devoid of leadership in that disaster all over again. Even though participants clad in yellow jackets in unison attend the private-public sector joint emergency review meeting presided over by the president, if the Education Ministry and the Health and Welfare Ministry give different messages over temporary school closures, and thus only add to people’s confusion, public anxiety will inevitably grow. Only when President Park checks daily situation and mobilize entire capacity of the nation, then will Korea prevent MERS from turning into a disaster that would add to woes to the economy and the country.

The World Health Organization issued on Tuesday recommendation suggesting that the world need to be prepared for possible airborne transmission of MERS. The unbelievable episode in which a 50-something woman, who had been ordered self-quarantine at home due to suspected MERS infection, traveled with some 10 people by bus and played golf is an act displaying poor spirit of citizenship. In order to prevent community transmission that could entail massive ramifications and damage, it is important that the public extend full cooperation and show civic consciousness.