South Korea’s growing Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak has laid bare the country’s poor handling of disasters despite President Park Geun-Hye’s commitment to revamp public safety measures after last year’s ferry disaster, the AFP reports experts say.
The first case of MERS was diagnosed on May 20 and has spread at an alarmingly rapid pace in South Korea—the fourth-largest economy in Asia. So far, 166 people have been infected and 24 of them have lost their lives in less than a month.
The number of people in quarantine has fallen 12 percent from the previous day to 5,930. Currently, 112 patients are in hospital for treatment and 30 others have been cured and released.
World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan expressed guarded optimism Thursday over South Korea’s ability to contain the outbreak, saying it was now “on a very good footing” after an initially slow response, according to AFP.
Combination of bureaucratic inefficiency and poor crisis management and training have been blamed, creating mistrust and public anxiety and shaking public confidence in the very foundations of the country’s “miracle” development model.
Almost all infections occurred in hospitals and experts from the World Health Organization said they saw no evidence of transmission of the virus in communities outside hospital settings.
The government has come under attacks for its inadequate initial response, feeding the argument that little has changed since the Sewol ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high-school students.
“The government just kept creating a new state body whenever a new crisis occurred, which rather hurt the consistency of public administration,” said Park Won-Ho, professor of political science at Seoul National University.
The health ministry was also criticized for withholding details about the outbreak including the list of hospitals where outbreaks occurred.
Succumbing to public pressure, it belatedly disclosed the names of the hospitals on June 7, but by then the virus had infected 64 people, killing five.
Uninformed, many patients contracted the virus when they sought treatment or visited families in those hospitals in early June.
Seoul’s major Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said that Park’s administration, which complained Monday that “excessive” public fear over MERS was hurting the economy, had only itself to blame.
“Apparently Park has learned nothing from the Sewol accident,” it said Thursday.
Apart from the government’s response, a lack of awareness about the virus among the public also played a part in its rapid spread, the WHO said Tuesday.
Some of the thousands placed under home quarantine were caught by police trying to sneak out, prompting Seoul to track their mobile phones or to warn of a hefty fine.
Seoul’s top-selling Chosun Ilbo newspaper said better safety awareness among the public — one of the most-discussed topics following the Sewol accident — was critical to curb the spread of the disease.
“No matter how good government policies are put in place, MERS will only keep growing into a dangerous monster if ordinary people don’t take part and help,” it said in an editorial on Thursday.