Due to the administration’s failure to prevent the novel coronavirus outbreak early, thousands of people got sick, dozens died and the entire nation is ridden with fear. Then, as soon as the spread of the virus slowed somewhat, the government sounded an upbeat note, praising its own efforts to contain COVID-19.
On Sunday when the daily growth of the number of confirmed infections fell for a second straight day, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said at a regular briefing that Korea is controlling the situation effectively.
He said that Korea was able to confirm a large number of infections thanks to its outstanding ability to test many people swiftly and to conduct a thorough epidemiological investigation.
“Korea has gone beyond existing epidemics management systems and is building a new disease control system based on openness and participation,” he said. “Our responses can become an exemplary case to other countries and a global standard on disease control.”
Though President Moon Jae-in cautioned against excessive optimism, he echoed in a meeting with his secretaries Monday that “if the current decreasing trend continues, Korea will be recognized absolutely as an exemplary case of driving out COVID-19.”
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Monday was hopeful of “reaching a turning point sooner or later,” citing the recent decline in the daily addition of new patients.
It is welcome news that the spread of COVID-19 faltered over a few days, but it is questionable if it warrants a situation where the government relaxes and brags about its fight against the virus.
Korea still has the third most confirmed infections in the world, behind China and Italy. The spread of the virus has slowed, but not stopped. The death toll reached 58 as of Tuesday morning, and is expected to keep rising. It is hardly understandable how the health minister boasted in this situation that the government is doing an exemplary job.
The daily growth of the total number of infections slowed because daily additions of infected believers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus decreased as diagnostic tests were done for most of the sect’s known followers in Daegu, which has been hit hardest by the virus.
The number of patients who have nothing to do with the church has been increasing daily, though not as explosively as among Shincheonji followers. In Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, about 2,000 COVID-19 patients still wait in their self-quarantined homes for hospital beds to be vacated. People across the country have difficulties buying face masks due to the government’s failure to secure them proactively. Its self-praise is out of place.
Doctors, nurses and other volunteers who are now working hard to save patients deserve praise. It is shameless of the government to describe the progress made with their devoted service as its merit.
The rapid spread of the disease is largely attributable to the government’s lacking initial response. It passed the golden hour to stem the influx of infection sources early. On Feb. 13 when confirmed infections were not reported four days in a row, Moon rushed to assure people that the coronavirus would disappear soon, failing to tighten vigilance against the epidemic despite experts’ warnings.
It is true the pandemic has subsided a bit, but danger still hangs over the nation. Sporadic outbreaks in other parts of the country, including transmissions with unknown routes, continue -- and no one knows when they could turn massive.
A mass infection was reported at an insurance company’s call center in Seoul on Monday. As of Tuesday morning, 34 employees of the center and their family members tested positive for the virus. The number is expected to rise because test results are not out yet for more than 150 employees there. Similar or more serious infections are likely to happen in densely populated cities.
Considering the government’s lukewarm early response was much to blame for the abrupt spread of the virus, optimism and self-praise should have no place at this stage. Now is the time for a persistent endeavor to control and prevent the disease.
The opera is not over until the fat lady sings.