February 21, 2020 19:01
The coronavirus outbreak is escalating beyond control, with the first death reported here just a month after the first infection was confirmed, while the total of infections has surged to over 200. New cases remained at roughly one a day for a month but have suddenly soared to more than 200 over the past three days. In China, the number of confirmed cases surged past 10,000 in less than 15 days after it started to double every day from 62 on Jan. 18. Korea cannot afford its nonchalance any longer.
Unexpected variables continue to emerge every day. About half of 1,000 members of a sect in Daegu where the 31st confirmed patient worshipped are showing tell-tale symptoms. And they may have spread the virus to an unknown number of other people because they go around the country proselytizing. In a hospital in Cheongdo, North Gyeongsang Province, where the first death occurred in a secure psychiatric ward, more than 100 patients and staff have been quarantined. There is not telling what will happen there in the coming days.
A panel of experts dealing with the latest outbreak said the worst-case scenario could be 40 percent of the entire Korean population being infected, resulting in 20,000 deaths. That would be an even worse crisis than bird flu outbreak in 2009, which infected 700,000 people and led to 230 deaths. Fears were allayed back then when a cure was found, but as yet there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19.
The government is responsible for the worsening crisis. The Korea Medical Association and other groups repeatedly recommended banning all travelers from China, and more than 700,000 people have signed a petition on the Cheong Wa Dae website pleading for it. But the government is sitting idly by as thousands of people arrived from China every day. This prompted one quarantine official to comment sarcastically that efforts to stem the spread until now have been a "show." Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said Wednesday, "It would obviously be good from a quarantine perspective for fewer high-risk visitors to arrive. But the KCDC's current stance is based on a government decision considering other factors." What our government has been doing so far is try to catch flies with the windows wide open. The government and ruling party must be scared out of their wits of upsetting China.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the new coronavirus can be transmitted by air in enclosed spaces. That makes it even riskier than Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. But the government's slack handling of the situation is steering the country straight into an emergency. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun chaired a meeting on Thursday where there was no mention of the outbreak. At that time of the day, a score of new infections had already been reported, raising concerns over a possible pandemic. It was not until a dozen more were reported that the government hurriedly arranged a minister-level meeting. It is a mystery what is occupying the minds of government officials instead.
If the government cannot be trusted, Koreans will need to protect themselves. Visiting a hospital or public health center with flu-like symptoms could raise the chances of coming into contact with infected patients, so it is best wait at home for a day or two before venturing. People should wear masks when visiting crowded places and wash their hands as it were religiously.
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