SEOUL -- A critical voice came out about a nonvirulent government crackdown for experts to feel as the daily number of new COVID-19 cases exceeded 500 at the beginning of winter, threatening to taint the reputation of South Korea which has been lauded as an example of quarantine. More worrisome, many new cases originated from Seoul and surrounding areas.
As a short-term response to cope with a new nationwide wave of COVID-19 that began in November, Jung Ki-suck, a respiratory disease expert at Hallym University Medical Center, demanded the government take strong anti-epidemic steps and crackdowns on the violation of rules at facilities where masks are obligatory. "It is now recognized by the world that wearing masks indoors is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19."
The mental state of South Koreans has apparently slackened due to a prolonged pandemic, and Jung suggests the government should persuade the public not to let up on social distancing if South Korea wants to avoid a crippling shutdown. "Isn't it much better to maintain economic activity on a reduced scale than to shut down?"
Jung was credited with refurbishing South Korea's anti-epidemic system while heading the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) from February 2016 to July 2017 after the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a highly contagious and fatal disease, caused panic across South Korea in 2015 and raised awareness on personal and public hygiene.
Jung praised South Korea's quick and effective handling of COVID-19 at the early stage, citing a rapid diagnostic system that played a crucial role in finding and isolating patients, the operation of screening centers, legal support for the development of test kits, and the dedication of medical staff, epidemiological investigators and health officials who showed a sense of duty. However, he was not so satisfied with state-run and public hospitals.
"The government has neglected public health care while relying on private health care. State-run and public hospitals should have emptied rooms to accommodate COVID-19 patients, but that was not the case," Jung said. "Not only national university hospitals but also local medical centers did not play a big role in the first and second wave of epidemics, not free from the proposition of securing profits."
To enhance the competitiveness of South Korea's quarantine and medical system, Jung advocated KDCA's independence so that it can develop its ability to respond to infectious diseases. "It is necessary for KDCA to secure its independence and service as a control tower in quarantine," he said, calling for sufficient manpower and investment in the study of infectious diseases, led by the Korea National Institute of Health which is the only national institution capable of studying infectious diseases intensively.
"With better manpower and budget support, the institute will play a major role in preventing infectious diseases," Jung said. "In the future, plans and strategies should be put into practice to attract better medical personnel to state-run public health care institutions."
For the development of South Korea's bio-industry, Jung said the government should increase the effectiveness of government funds and research directions. "South Korea has invested heavily in R&D, but it turned out to be insufficiently competitive in the development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatment. This proves that there is a problem in the selection of research directions and the allocation of research funds."
(This story is based on an interview conducted by Aju Business Daily reporter Chun Hwan-wook)
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