(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 4)
State of emergency
Open up information for more effective MERS response
Koreans' worst concerns are turning into a reality, as the number of MERS patients continues to climb amid the reports of deaths. The number of people isolated for fear of infecting others has swelled to more than 1,300, with more than 200 elementary schools and kindergartens closed temporarily.
As most people know, this health crisis and social turmoil stemmed from the government's extremely poor initial response to the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome two weeks ago. Out of laxity and ignorance, officials neither spotted the first few cases nor kept people around them, health care workers and relatives, in quarantine.
Adding to mounting public concerns was a lack of information ― the exact area affected, the list of hospitals, the first patient and those infected by him ― leading to the spread of groundless rumors and swelling unfounded fears in a vicious circle. At the root of the popular fear and confusion is a distrust of the government, its incompetence and undue secrecy.
Officials say making public the hospitals affected would force their owners to hide the truths for financial reasons, citing the examples of advanced countries. The truth is quite different. When the Ebola crisis first broke out, for example, the U.S. government opened up details, disclosing the names of hospitals and patients and letting Americans know better and protect themselves. The Seoul government should have done the same, promising financial supports for the hospitals.
The ongoing crisis of public health brings to mind the tragic ferry sinking of last year in more than a few ways. Many Internet users call it the "Sewol crisis of epidemics," after the name of the ill-fated vessel.
Like a year ago, government officials wasted away the "golden time" ― the first hours in the case of the ferry sinking and the first days in the MERS outbreak ― to minimize damage out of their incompetence and irresponsibility. At the top of this glaring slow response was President Park Geun-hye. Last year, President Park astonished people by appearing before the public long after the crucial several hours and making some belated, irrelevant remarks. It was also exactly two weeks after the outbreak of MERS that Park chaired an interagency meeting Wednesday.
This painfully compares not only with the U.S. President Barack Obama's swift, effective leadership in responding to the Ebola outbreak last year, but also with the Roh Moo-hyun administration's handling of the SARS crisis in 2003. The then-Prime Minister Goh Kun, who took the lead in blocking the landing of SARS in Korea, later reflected on the incident, saying, "It was little short of conducting a war."
Why can't this administration repeat what its predecessor so successfully did more than a decade ago? Is it because some others things ― such as partisan and factional interests ― are occupying the minds of officials now, including the chief executive herself, putting aside people's safety and health?
At stake now are people's lives at home and the nation's reputation to deal with a crisis abroad. The epidemic crisis can also throw the already sluggish recovery into a deeper pit. President Park must take the lead in uniting central and local governments and mobilizing both public and private sectors to contain its damages to the minimum.
How the President and her administration do in the next several days will determine whether or not Koreans are forced to suffer yet another safety trauma.