Let's fight virus head-on
By Choi Sung-jin
"Guys, this resembles the Asian Games medal standings. China, by far, is topping the list and Korea, a distant runner-up, trailed by Japan," wrote one of my close friends in a group chat room about a month ago. That was when the new coronavirus outbreak was still mainly concentrated in China.
Now that COVID-19 has all but turned into a pandemic, with the virus spreading across 110 countries and territories, the numbers increasingly look like those of the Olympic Games.
All countries will, of course, aim to go south in this list of rankings.
Fifty days have passed since Korea saw its first confirmed case of the coronavirus, a 35-year-old Chinese woman, on Jan. 20. She later returned to her homeland fully recovered and heaping words of thanks on healthcare providers here for treating her illness. However, the nation still had the most confirmed cases outside China, with over 7,500 patients Tuesday.
That may change in the months to come, according to local experts. "The total numbers of confirmed cases in the United States and Japan, which stand at about 500 and 1,200, respectively, may prove to be the tip of the iceberg if the two countries conduct virus tests in earnest from now on," said Lee Wang-jun, who heads the emergency working group to cope with new coronavirus at the Korean Hospital Association.
Appearing in a YouTube video recently, Lee, chairman of Myongji Hospital in Goyang, a bedroom town just north of Seoul, predicted the ongoing fight might turn into a year-long battle all over the world. "Then, the Korean model could emerge as a research subject in good ways and bad, but mostly in good ones," he said.
This seems to be a far cry from the allegations of conservative political parties and media outlets here. They accuse the Moon Jae-in administration of completely failing to prevent the spread because it did not blockade travelers from China at an early stage, unlike the U.S. and some other countries.
As it turned out later, however, mass infections in the southeastern city of Daegu and surrounding North Gyeongsang Province account for 90 percent of all confirmed cases in this country.
Sixthy percent of patients are related to the Daegu and North Gyeongsang chapters of a secretive Christian sect named the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Only a few cases can be traced to Chinese people who have entered into Korea. In some cities south of Seoul, where many Chinese and Korean-Chinese live and work, the infection rates are the lowest in Korea. Border closures have little effects or meaning in this era of super-connectivity when even perils go global.
Yes, President Moon and his government should take responsibility for failing to prevent the mass infection. Moon cannot avoid criticism for his show of complacency.
The government's failure to provide a sufficient number of face masks was also attributable to the same shortsightedness and/or the instinct of the party in power to play down an approaching peril.
Otherwise, Korea deserves a high praise in dealing with the virus. Since its first outbreak, the nation has been transparent, aggressive and systematic in fighting the virus head-on, unlike China bent on hiding facts at the early phase, unlike Japan striving to keep a cruise vessel off the coastline and turning it into a petri dish later, and unlike the U.S. whose leader paid little attention to it at first.
Some critics in the U.S. and Japan took issue with their countries' test capacity of a few hundred or thousand a day, compared with more than 10,000 here. A U.S. official recently asked about Korea's "drive-through" testing method.
None of these, however, keep the nation's conservative critics from attacking the progressive government. These politicians and newspapers criticize Moon, accusing him of bungling the handling of the virus as he focused only on currying favor with China, and call for him to benchmark the U.S. What should Korea learn from America where only wealthy people can afford to receive the test as it costs about 4 million won ($3,300) per person? Compare this with Korea, where some Shincheonji followers refuse to take tests even when they are free of charge.
Looking back, a major epidemic has occurred once every five or six years in recent decades. In the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, only three cases occurred with no deaths under the progressive Roh Moo-hyun administration.
In 2009 when the country was hit with swine flu, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration saw more than 700,000 patients and almost 300 deaths. During the spread of MERS in 2015, 186 caught the disease, and 39 died when conservative President Park Geun-hye was in Cheong Wa Dae.
But then its global spread was relatively small at 1,367 cases. In the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Korea's mortality rate remains at 0.7 percent compared with the worldwide average of 3.5 percent.
What all this shows is the importance of a transparent, humble and democratic approach to dealing with a pandemic or climate disaster. The Moon government's mistakes also came when it turned defiant ― if temporarily ― amid a self-defensive mentality.
Global perils, be they new viruses or wildfires or floods, will come more frequently and on a larger scale, given humankind's destruction of the ecosystem and unhindered globalization. The attitudes in fighting worldwide catastrophe seem to have become more evident; science instead of fear-mongering, altruism in place of hatred, and solidarity rather than xenophobia.
So far, at least, Korea has been moving in more desirable ways than not.