Jul 24, 2015

    S. Korea recovers, no thanks to politicians

    THANKFULLY, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) epidemic in South Korea seems to be finally over.

    After two long months of nationwide alert, fatalities have stopped at 36 out of the 186 people who were struck by the respiratory disease supposedly originating from camels in the Arabian Desert. About a dozen are still under treatment, but there have been no new outbreaks for over two weeks.

    Once-contaminated hospitals were allowed to begin receiving patients again, and the tens of thousands who were kept in quarantine have all been released.

    Politicians and politics did practically nothing to help combat the disease, instead adding to people's frustrations during the crisis.

    Internal disputes continued within the ruling and opposition camps. Partisan wrangling heated up over endless issues, the latest one involving the purchase of hacking programs by the state intelligence apparatus from an Italian firm. Politicians could only take time out to snap pictures with doctors and nurses in protective gear.

    Half of the five-year tenure has passed since Park Geun Hye was elected to the highest office, partly on her own leadership quality and partly on the public nostalgia towards her late father, Park Chung Hee. Her remaining years in the Blue House will inevitably be a process of decline in her influence on the party.

    Politicians, including President Park, owe the people a collective apology for failing to lead them in the hard struggle against the deadly virus.

    In the early stage of the epidemic striking Seoul and its vicinity, Ms Park played a rather obscure role in directing the government's emergency endeavours. She had a lesson from the Sewol ferry incident last year, but again acted more like a "concerned" princess than a leader elected to fight adversity and share the people's pain.

    To be absolved of criticism, Ms Park needs to do something that the people want rather than engage in power games. Bolstering the nation's public health administration - with more staff and organisational upgrading - is necessary now.

    In the war against Mers, the line of command had non-experts in the top positions. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), which was supposed to act as field command, was more a research institute than a fighting machine.

    CDCP is headquartered in the Osong Bioscience Complex, not far from the Health and Welfare Ministry in Sejong City, but both are 150km away from Seoul. The scattered location of these government offices was cited as another obstacle in tackling the Mers situation.

    Many still blame Ms Park for causing administrative inefficiency, recalling how she had foiled former president Lee Myung Bak's attempt to scrap a programme to split government ministries in Seoul and Sejong city.

    Ms Park has to establish a reliable counter-epidemic system and network to cope with sudden attacks of contagious diseases on humans and animals, which are destined to increase in this age of massive global movements of people and food.

    An independent administration for medical services should be set up, as expert officials should be able to control both public and private medical institutions in emergencies, and be authorised to mobilise and deploy medical staff promptly.

    We need to study why the United States surgeon-general is given the military rank of vice-admiral and the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is one of seven uniformed services of the United States.

    The Blue House may be hesitant to create ministerial or vice-ministerial positions in the area of public health and upgrade the anti-epidemic administration, worried that people might criticise the repeat of the kind of measures taken after the Sewol incident.

    Ms Park should remember that this is one of the few things that she should devote herself to, no matter what political issues may arise to distract her.


    Mr Kim is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald.