Govt's response offers cold comfort
IN THE light of nationwide fears over the outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), the South Korean government appears to have finally got its act together, setting up an emergency response team to collect information and devise proper countermeasures.
The media is being regularly briefed every day on the latest developments in one of the biggest nationwide health concerns since the H1N1 flu in 2009.
However, a closer look at the meetings and briefings begs the question of how effective this emergency response team is.
One example is the apparent inability of the Education Ministry and local education offices to share and procure accurate information about a student-related Mers case.
On Monday, the Health Ministry confirmed South Korea's first teenage Mers patient, a 16-year-old boy. But subsequent media briefings were prolific only in words and contained little facts.
Numerous variations of "We don't know" or "It has not been confirmed yet" were said by officials of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (Smoe), whose job includes taking care of students' well-being.
The Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education on Tuesday said the student was in fact from Gyeonggi Province, contrary to an earlier announcement that the teen was from Seoul. The office said it obtained the information from its own sources, not the health authorities, and urged them to release all relevant information.
Putting aside its excuse that the Health Ministry was monopolising information, Smoe appeared to be making only minimal efforts of its own.
In perhaps one of the most bizarre ways to address queries from the media, Smoe gathered information from news outlets and relayed it back to the reporters. As a result, very little information could be confirmed - none of which included critical knowledge such as the school's name and location, where the boy lived and if he had met other students since catching the virus.
Likewise, the Education Ministry seemed only a little less oblivious to the situation.
After the initial report of the teen's infection, a ministry official confirmed that the boy had attended a Seoul-based high school in the morning. But his colleague contradicted him, saying that they were not certain of the location of the boy's school.
Later, the officials were not shy in admitting that their flip-flopping statements were due to the fact that they were not being given accurate information from the higher-ups.
The laughable situation exposed two major problems. One was the lack of coordination between government bodies. The other, perhaps more critical, was the seemingly complacent attitude of the authorities.
"Unifying the outlet for all relevant information is more efficient. What would happen if all government bodies started providing their own versions of the situation?" asked a high-ranking official from the Education Ministry.
Brushing past the central government, which had been taking low-profile measures against Mers until earlier this week, local municipalities including Seoul, Seongnam and Bucheon started providing information on the outbreak status on their own.
The move, while praised by many hungry for official information on the virus, also drew criticism for unveiling unconfirmed or inconsistent facts.
Cheong Wa Dae (the president's executive office), for its part, shot back that their "excessive" information-sharing escalated panic and confusion. Some also accused the local heads of being politically motivated.
All this underlined policymakers' inability to work seamlessly, at the cost of the public's confusion and further aggravating the sense of chaos.
Last week, the Health Ministry said that a little under 300 students and teachers had been quarantined due to Mers risks. But it turned out, according to Jeong Jin Hoo from the minor opposition Justice Party, that the Education Ministry's figure was only 32.
While Education Minister Hwang Woo Yea advised schools to cancel classes on Friday, the Health Ministry announced the same day that there was no need to do so.
"I think (the Health Ministry) did not know that Mr Hwang had already advised schools to cancel classes, since its announcement came before his," said an Education Ministry official on a Mers special response team.
Not surprisingly, even this excuse proved incongruous as Mr Hwang's announcement had actually preceded the Health Ministry's.
Yet the government still claims the public has no reason to panic.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK