Where Is the Leadership in This MERS Crisis?

      June 03, 2015 13:27

      Two people have died from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, while cases of tertiary infection not caused by direct contact with the first virus carrier were also reported for the first time. Thirty people have been confirmed to have contracted MERS, including three tertiary infections. The number of people health officials have placed in quarantine has risen to over 700.

      The government's response is still passive and several steps too slow. Health officials have quarantined only a small number of elderly patients in state-run facilities, while most of the people who are suspected of infection have just been told to stay home and keep 2 m away from their family, wear a mask and sleep alone. There are 579 quarantine facilities in 17 hospitals across the nation, but only 105 of them are equipped with rooms that can block viruses. There is no more room in existing quarantine facilities to handle more patients.

      The public is starting to grow increasingly anxious as the number of confirmed MERS cases rises and the economic toll is becoming visible. Tourists are canceling plans to visit Korea, while some schools and kindergartens have closed. A number of businesses are considering temporary closure and people are canceling hospital visits after learning that MERS infections started spreading at a hospital. If this atmosphere continues for more than a month, the domestic economy is expected to enter a slump as it did after the ferry disaster last year. Other countries will assess how Korea handles the MERS outbreak. MERS threatens the lives of Koreans, and the country's image hinges on how effectively it deals with the disease. This could become a national crisis.

      Yet Cheong Wa Dae has been silent, leaving everything in the hands of the Ministry of Health and Welfare. On Tuesday, acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan finally chaired a meeting on the matter. The only thing that President Park Geun-hye has done so far was to issue a statement to the effect that she has "instructed officials" to mobilize all of the nation's medical resources to combat the spread of MERS. She has yet to lead any meetings on the disease or drop into the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead she stuck to her normal schedule, going to Yeosu on Tuesday to open a business center, seemingly oblivious to the crisis.

      The president should be completely immersed in dealing with the MERS crisis. If she fails to take the lead in a matter that affects human lives and the nation's image, the MERS crisis could escalate into a major calamity. 

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