[Editorial] All of S. Korea needs to unite to successfully fight off COVID-19

Posted on : 2020-08-28 17:24 KST Modified on : 2020-08-28 17:24 KST
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting with church leaders at the Blue House on Aug. 27. (Yonhap News)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting with church leaders at the Blue House on Aug. 27. (Yonhap News)

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been rising at a rapid rate. South Korea reported a total of 441 new patients at 12 am on Aug. 27 -- signaling that the “psychological red line” of 400 new cases per day had been crossed. Those 441 cases represent the largest single-day total in the 173 days since Mar. 7, when 483 patients were diagnosed during the first major outbreak associated with Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu.

The numbers for the Seoul Capital Area (SCA) -- Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, and Incheon -- were at an all-time high of 313. It’s not just the numbers that are cause for serious concern. The National Assembly and the Central Government Complex in Seoul have both been breached; a guide working at the Blue House’s Sarangchae (tourism exhibition center) tested positive. It’s enough to have you asking what happened to the “model disease prevention nation” that had earned the envy of the international community.

On Aug. 27, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCHQ) announced that it was “discussing matters urgently and leaving all possibilities open, including an upgrade to Level 3 social distancing.” If the situation meets the standards for a Level 3 upgrade, we can’t keep putting it off. Once the number of new cases starts spiraling out of control, it will already be too late. At the same time, the upgrade to Level 3 can’t be based on numerical standards alone. Level 3 will bring enormous side effects that will have to be directly absorbed by the economy. We could have a situation where temporary and day workers in particular face mass unemployment, while already endangered small businesses are unable to hold out any longer.

The first order of business is to look back on how things reached this point. It goes without saying that ground zero for this crisis has been Sarang Jeil Church and a rally held at Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square on Aug. 15. This sort of bad behavior is no isolated incident from these figures. Even now, many of them continue concealing their activities or refusing to get tested, creating chaos for the disease control and prevention system. It’s difficult to fathom what kind of explosive potential they harbor. If we base our calculations on the 33% positive testing rate and 32% actual testing rates for patients associated with Sarang Jeil Church -- who already numbered 959 as of Aug. 27 -- we could end up seeing confirmed cases far in excess of 1,000.

While this crisis has been going on, doctors have been staging a strike in opposition to a planned expansion of medical school admission quotas. As President Moon Jae-in put it, it’s the equivalent of firefighters going on strike at the scene of a fire. Obviously, South Korea does not have any firefighters who would do that. Another factor that can be pointed to in the current crisis is a relaxed sense of urgency among the South Korean public. In the wake of the Level 2 social distancing upgrade last weekend, travel dropped by 20% -- less than half the 40% rate observed during the first major outbreak. So the crisis should rightly be seen as reflecting a combination of several different factors.

The disease control authorities are saying it is still too early for the Level 2 social distancing to have shown its effects. The argument is that the current rise could abate if everyone is rigorous about observing disease prevention rules. It’s time for each and every member of South Korean society to reawaken that sense of tension, reminding themselves they are the true agents of disease prevention. The physician groups, for their part, need to call off their collective strike and quickly return to the front lines of the healthcare crisis.

Disease control can only succeed when everyone is united in the face of a life-or-death crisis. It was most likely this sense of urgency that led Moon to meet with leaders of the Protestant community on Aug. 27 and plead for their cooperation. It was deeply disappointing to see the remarks made during that meeting by United Christian Churches of Korea Co-President Kim Tae-young, who insisted that religious freedom was “a value that cannot be exchanged for lives” and that “while churches will cooperate actively with the government’s disease prevention efforts, they cannot give up on holding services.”

Best method of disease prevention is community spirit

The entire religious community -- including Protestant churches -- needs to actively participate in social distancing. It would also greatly help in boosting disease prevention commitment and capabilities for South Korean society as a whole if the president and opposition party leaders were to meet and put their heads together. The surest method of disease prevention is a community spirit.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

Caption: South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting with church leaders at the Blue House on Aug. 27. (Yonhap News)

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