The South Korean government announced Wednesday its plan to legislate to change the government structure by making the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) independent from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The new legislation would allow the KCDC to have local disease control centers under it and the ministry to assign two vice ministers one of whom will be solely in charge of public health.
In responding to COVID-19, the KCDC has largely been reactive as it did not have the authority to make and execute policies. However, with the newly gained independence, the organization would be able to devise a long-term plan to respond to healthcare crises. There has been broad consensus on the legislation, which was discussed during the 2015 outbreak of MERS, as the lack of stewardship has been cited as one of the main reasons for the failure to stop the spread of the virus at the early stage. Given the increasing frequency and impact of outbreaks of infectious diseases, it makes sense that a group of experts are given its own budget and the power to appoint officials in order to execute public health policies.
However, there seems to be no justification for appointing a second vice health minister when there is an independent organization in charge of public health policies. The KDCD should be guaranteed the authority to appoint its officials to prevent the Ministry of Health and Welfare from filling new vacancies in the KDCD with the people it does not want. Some confusion and inefficiency could also be created resulting from the fact that the new local disease control centers and community healthcare centers report to different organizations.
It also begs the question if it is the right time for the government reshuffle. The public is feeling anxious as the insidious spread of COVID-19 continues, as opposed to slowing down. South Korean President Moon Jae-in posted on his social media account, “I thought we turned a corner,” after 49 new cases were recorded on Wednesday as more students went back to school. Now is the time to look back and beef up the healthcare system for a possible second wave that might come in fall. The government should manage high risk facilities while securing more hospital beds.
South Korea, which used to see soaring numbers of new infections everyday, was able to come out on the other side thanks to private hospitals. They turned out in force to help prevent the collapse of the healthcare system when a large outbreak occurred in Daegu even though it meant loss for their business. Now, the local hospitals are suffering from loss because they had to suspend other medical services during the COVID-19 outbreak. Would they be willing to fight on the front lines again if the government praises itself without giving credit where credit is due? Creating new positions in the government will not help win a war against the next pandemic.