It has become clear that President Moon Jae-in’s administration has made a consequential mistake in containing the spread of a novel coronavirus by hesitating to impose an entry ban on visitors from all parts of China.
On Monday morning, Korea reported its seventh fatality from the epidemic and 161 new confirmed cases, bringing the total infections here to 763. Now the country has the largest number of infections outside China, where the deadly virus originated in December.
Many infections reported over the past few days have been linked to a secretive Christian sect known as Shincheonji, which has an estimated 200,000 followers, mostly in Daegu and nearby North Gyeongsang Province.
Local quarantine authorities say they are investigating whether the church has had personnel exchanges with its overseas branches, especially in China. The church reportedly set up a branch in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, last year.
Still, it is not the source of the epidemic. It might also be seen as the victim of the government’s failure to cut off the source of infection from the start.
Despite repeated calls from medical experts for a blanket ban, Moon’s administration has not gone further beyond belatedly barring visitors from Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, from entering the country in early February. The first coronavirus outbreak here was reported Jan. 20.
Moon appears to have ruled out the possibility of a total entry ban from the outset, saying “China’s suffering is also South Korea’s suffering.”
In a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, Moon hoped China could overcome the outbreak with the unified power of its people. He also said Korea expected a joint response with China to the virus epidemic, including the exchange of information useful for his government’s quarantine measures.
Moon should rather have suggested it would be necessary for Korea to impose an extensive entry ban on Chinese visitors and this measure would be conducive to keeping friendly ties between the two countries.
While announcing a decision to raise the alert against the spread of the coronavirus to the highest level of “serious” on Sunday, Moon still stopped short of strengthening restrictions on entry from China.
He said the government should not hesitate to take “unprecedented powerful” measures to contain the infectious disease, emphasizing the country’s fight against it would be “utterly different” between before and after the collective infections traced to Shincheonji.
But it is doubtful whether strengthened measures unaccompanied by a ban, though belated, on entry from China would be sufficiently effective in bringing the epidemic under control.
The Moon administration has made no formal explanation as to why it has not stopped the inflow of travelers from China. The presidential office has remained silent on the public petition for the entry ban, which has been signed by more than 700,000 people online over the past month.
It may be understood that the Moon government has hesitated to impose an entry ban partly because of concerns about the impact of the move on the economy. With Chinese visitors accounting for a third of tourists to the country, the measure could further hit an economy already struggling with declining domestic demand.
But the continuous spread of the virus might plunge the economy into a worse situation.
As some critics note, Moon might also have dragged his feet on imposing an entry ban on Chinese visitors in order not to hurt the environment for Xi’s planned visit to Seoul. In his phone talks with Moon, Xi reaffirmed his plan to push for a visit to Seoul in the first half of this year as agreed earlier.
A massive influx of Chinese students in the coming weeks could further complicate Korea’s desperate efforts to contain the virus outbreak. Nearly 40,000 of about 70,000 Chinese students enrolled in universities here have yet to enter the country to attend the spring semester.
Of them, some 19,000 students are scheduled to arrive in the country within a couple weeks to come, according to the Education Ministry.
Precautionary measures include shuttle bus services from airports to schools, extra isolated facilities for students not accommodated in dormitories and daily health checks. But it is far from guaranteed to successfully quarantine all incoming Chinese students for the required period.