The South Korean military decided to have all 300-plus crewmembers on the Munmu the Great destroyer of the 34th contingent of the Cheonghae unit return home after a cluster infection of COVID-19 on the ship. Two KC-330 Cygnus multipurpose aerial refueling tankers will be sent to airlift crewmembers.
Medical staff and replacement personnel to handle the return of the Munmu the Great will be on board the tankers. It was decided to have everybody return home regardless of their diagnoses in consideration of potential mass infections, as it will take about one month for the Munmu the Great to return home.
The main culprits behind the cluster infection of the Cheonghae unit, which will bring troops dispatched overseas back home, are lax disease control efforts and responses without a clear plan. Quick response and local cooperation must have been difficult as the ship was far out at sea, but it took over 10 days from the first suspected case to a confirmed diagnosis. It cannot avoid criticism for being late and lax. Any issues in the command and report system to report issues should be examined.
A battleship was proven to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 in several cases as a number of people stay in tightly closed spaces with well-connected ventilation facilities. The USS Theodore Roosevelt produced over 1,000 patients last year and the Go Jun Bong-class LST of the South Korean Navy had over 30 cases just three months ago. The Cheonghae unit, which was executing operations far out at sea, should have had a higher sense of alert and carefully crafted plans for prevention.
Meanwhile, the military authorities’ failure to provide vaccines deserves criticism. None of the crewmembers of the Munmu the Great were vaccinated as the ship departed in early February before vaccination started. The Dongmyeong Unit in Lebanon and the Hanbit Unit in the Republic of South Sudan were either vaccinated before dispatch or in local sites with the cooperation of the U.N. or host nations. The military explains that local vaccination was difficult as emergency responses to abnormal reactions to vaccines and meeting the refrigeration standard of vaccines were challenging. However, the authorities need to reflect on whether they were inattentive to overseas dispatched troops when all general troops in the country have been vaccinated.
Overseas dispatched troops carry out missions, such as peacekeeping, rehabilitation work, and medical support, while representing South Korea. They are working hard to raise the status of South Korea in dangerous and poor local conditions. The country that failed to keep them safe from an infectious disease should be ashamed for its indifference and irresponsibility.