Jun 6, 2015

South Korea - No changes since Sewol

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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-the-night 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, reorganisation 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.

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