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Coronavirus puts Moon administration to test

Health minister says next week critical in coronavirus response

The continuing coronavirus crisis is raising the pressure on the Moon Jae-in administration, as it scrambles to deal with the outbreak.

On Monday, the government announced more measures announced to tackle the situation, while Minister of Health and Welfare assessed the situation, hinging on developments over the next seven to 10 days.

“(The virus) continues to spread in China, so a week to 10 days from now will be very important,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said at a meeting of the pan-government response team, while assessing measures such as entry restrictions as being “urgent and necessary.”

President Moon Jae-in speaks at a meeting with senior aides on Monday. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in speaks at a meeting with senior aides on Monday. Yonhap

On Sunday, the government announced that Seoul will bar foreigners who have visited Hubei province, China within 14 days from entering the country. Although the government says that it is the toughest measure rolled out by any Korean government against an infectious disease, criticism against the timing and scope of the measure continues to grow.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party has called for denying entry to travelers from China for some time, while experts say that barring arrivals from Hubei province will have only a limited effect as the virus has been spread to a much larger area in China.

In part due to the coronavirus outbreak, President Moon’s approval rating dropped to a 12-week low. According to a poll conducted by Realmeter, his approval rating came to 45 percent as of end-January -- the lowest since the first week of November.

Under the measures, foreigners who have visited China’s Hubei province in the past 14 days will be barred from entering Korea starting midnight Monday. In addition, Chinese nationals with passports issued in Hubei province will not be allowed to enter the country, and the visa waiver program for Chinese nationals for Jeju Island will be suspended until further notice.

Under the plans, foreigners planning to enter Korea from China will be asked whether they have visited Hubei province before their tickets are issued, and screened upon arrival here. Those found to have provided false information after entering Korea will be deported and banned from returning the country.

According to Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Gang-lip, the government will consider whether to expand the areas of China such measures will be applied to.

“The need for (applying the measures to other areas) will continue to be reviewed,” Kim said, saying that the government will focus on ensuring the measures are applied stringently for the time being.

He added that restricting entry is the toughest measure against infectious diseases taken by any past administration.

The government also plans to set up separate immigration facilities at seaports and airports for arrivals from China. Travelers of all nationalities arriving from China will be required to go through separate immigration procedures, where they will be required to verify their address and contract information during their stay.

Moon again called for concentrated efforts to deal with the outbreak, saying that the temporary restrictions are unavoidable.

“A pan-government response system led by the prime minister will be put into operation, and take strong measures to prevent the spread (of the virus),” Moon said at the weekly meeting with presidential aides. At the meeting, he said that the government will introduce more stringent preventative measures, and urged the government to concentrate on containing the virus and reducing public fears.

While stressing the need to contain the virus, Moon also emphasized the importance of relations with China, and said that the country must fully support China.

In China, the number of confirmed cases came to 17,205 and the number of deaths to 361 as of midnight Monday. The figures are, respectively, 2,829 and 57 higher compared to the previous day.

The number of confirmed cases in Korea stands at 15. According to the authorities, all 15 are in stable condition, and one of the earlier confirmed patients has recovered sufficiently to be considered for release from isolation.

Of the 701 Koreans who returned from Wuhan on two chartered flights, 700 have tested negative for the new strain of coronavirus and are currently in quarantine in Asan, South Chungcheong Province, and Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province.

One of the evacuees, a 28-year-old male, tested positive for the virus as he developed symptoms after entering the facility in Asan.