Following a sharp jump in coronavirus cases to more than 602 and fatalities to six, the South Korean government has raised its coronavirus alert to the highest level on Sunday. The declaration, which has been made for the first time since the 2009 flu pandemic, is a sign that the government acknowledges the wide spread of the disease. The government will switch its focus to mitigating the impact from preventing the spread and place stricter measures such as closing down schools or suspending public transport.
The change should have been made earlier, considering that all major cities and provinces have already been affected and the point of transmission is unknown for many patients. The virus has spread across all 17 cities and provinces including military bases and government buildings within a month. Suspended public services have paralyzed cities, and the worst-case scenario of hospital transmission seems like a matter of time with about 20 infected medical staff at nine hospitals.
Israel has banned South Korean citizens from entering the country after a group of residents of the North Gyeongsang Province who came back from a pilgrimage in Israel were diagnosed with the virus while 12 nations are considering South Korea a country with a high risk and moving to place similar restrictions. The United States has also issued a Level 2 advisory for South Korea. South Korean citizens living abroad, including students who have come home for their spring break, are worried that they would not be easily allowed back in.
The main reason why the coronavirus outbreak has become a national crisis is the government’s failure to handle the risk. The latest coronavirus was first confirmed, on December 1, 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei province, which is only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from South Korea. However, the government did not issue even the Level 1 alert until there was the first confirmed case in South Korea. By February 13, some raised the possibility of the number of confirmed cases brought down to zero only to see the figure skyrocket on Tuesday. Even though experts advised it to ban all Chinese travelers for a long time, the government banned travelers from Hubei province on February 4. It was a decision made based on the diplomatic and economical ramifications, but, the government’s decision to keep the borders open has resulted in other countries closing their borders to South Korean citizens.
Now, the government’s focus should be to contain the outbreak and reduce the damage. Many hospitals are already struggling with a lack of beds and staff. The manual should be updated to match the highest level alert while available resources should be distributed based on priorities. Citizens will inevitably experience inconveniences given that their personal details such as address and location might be shared, and public transport services might be also restricted in high risk areas where the bullet train KTX might not stop. Also South Korean citizens should pay attention even to mild symptoms and reach out to the appropriate medical centers depending on the severity of the symptoms so that they can protect themselves and the community. These concerted efforts will help the country overcome the national crisis.