Amid MERS, lit­tle change since Se­wol

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Amid the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to re­lease the full list of MERS-re­lated hos­pi­tals, Seoul City Mayor Park Won-soon held a press brief­ing late Thurs­day night where he re­vealed that a doc­tor who has since been di­ag­nosed with MERS al­legedly had di­rect and in­di­rect con­tact with over 1,500 peo­ple be­fore his in­fec­tion was con­firmed.

Park at­tacked the Health Min­istry for be­ing un­co­op­er­a­tive and de­clared that he would now take charge of ef­forts to deal with MERS in Seoul. The un­sched­uled mid­dle-of-thenight press con­fer­ence was clearly a po­lit­i­cally cal­cu­lated move — Park is re­garded as a con­tender in the 2017 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — and the an­nounce­ment may have stoked wide­spread panic, a con­cern the health au­thor­i­ties have re­peat­edly raised as a rea­son for not re­leas­ing the list of MERS-re­lated hos­pi­tals.

The Health Min­istry and the Blue House shot back Fri­day morn­ing, ac­cus­ing Park of cre­at­ing more fear and con­fu­sion with the city’s uni­lat­eral an­nounce­ment. While the City HalI’s alarm is un­der­stand­able — Seoul is a megapo­lis of more than 10 mil­lion peo­ple — it should have con­sulted with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment be­fore mak­ing a state­ment with the po­ten­tial to spark mass panic. The Health Min­istry, for the first time, named Pyeong­taek St. Mary’s Hos­pi­tal as the hos­pi­tal where the first pa­tient was treated.

The on­go­ing MERS out­break bears un­canny sim­i­lar­ity to the Se­wol ferry dis­as­ter last year that claimed the lives of more than 300 peo­ple. De­spite the dis­band­ing of the Coast Guard, re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of min­istries and Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye’s pledge to make the na­tion safer, lit­tle seems to have changed since the dis­as­ter last April.

First, there is the poor ini­tial re­sponse that re­sulted in the loss of op­por­tu­ni­ties to con­tain the dis­as­ter in each in­ci­dent. With MERS, an op­por­tu­nity to con­tain the in­fec­tion was lost when the health au­thor­i­ties only mon­i­tored peo­ple who were in the same room as the first pa­tient. Had it more ag­gres­sively and swiftly re­sponded to the first case, the spread of MERS could have been bet­ter con­tained.

Sec­ond, the ab­sence of a con­trol tower over­see­ing and co­or­di­nat­ing the var­i­ous ef­forts ham­pered the gov­ern­ment’s han­dling of the Se­wol in­ci­dent, and we are wit­ness­ing a re­peat of the same dire per­for­mance in the un­fold­ing MERS spread. Dur­ing the SARS episode in 2003, which was suc­cess­fully con­tained, the prime min­is­ter was in charge, co­or­di­nat­ing the var­i­ous min­istries. Korea has been with­out a prime min­is­ter for more than a month now.

Third, the gov­ern­ment, which at­tempted to re­strict in­for­ma­tion to the public dur­ing the Se­wol dis­as­ter, is do­ing the same again. Just as then, the lack of in­for­ma­tion has led to ru­mors bur­geon­ing in cy­berspace. Whereas the gov­ern­ment will be bet­ter able to curb public anx­i­ety by ac­tively pro­vid­ing ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion in a timely man­ner, it stub­bornly con­tin­ues to stick to the pol­icy of not re­leas­ing the names of hos­pi­tals in­volved. The gov­ern­ment claims that such in­for­ma­tion will only add to the con­fu­sion and in­con­ve­nience of the public, but that ex­cuse be­came in­valid when MERS be­gan spread­ing quickly.

De­mand cre­ates sup­ply and a web­site has popped up pro­vid­ing a de­tailed map on the sta­tus of the out­break and the hos­pi­tals in­volved. Health care ex­perts have com­mented that the web­site pro­vides a valu­able tool for the doc­tors in the front­line at clin­ics and smaller hos­pi­tals.

Mean­while, po­lice are prob­ing peo­ple whom it al­leges posted ground­less ru­mors on the In­ter­net and SNS. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion is also un­der­way into the leak of a doc­u­ment from a gov­ern­ment health clinic de­tail­ing the hos­pi­tals treat­ing MERS pa­tients.

Rather than di­vert­ing re­sources to such ef­forts, the au­thor­i­ties should find ways of ef­fec­tively dis­sem­i­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion in a prompt man­ner. That is the only way to stem the ris­ing panic. Of­ten­times, fear is a big­ger threat than the threat it­self. This is an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished by The Korea Her­ald on June 6.

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