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[Editorial] Do not pass the buck

Minister blames Koreans; Cheong Wa Dae points at Shincheonji; Ruling party praises response

Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that “South Koreans who have been to China have spread the virus in Korea from the start.”

About 20,000 Chinese people entered South Korea from China each day last month. From a common-sense standpoint, how can he be sure that transmissions of the virus from Chinese visitors have seldom occurred?

COVID-19 appears to have originated in Wuhan, China, and South Korea’s first confirmed case was Chinese. Of course, before community spread of the virus started, some South Koreans who came from China were infected with the virus, but they likely caught the disease in China. A virus does not distinguish the nationalities of its victims, but the government blames only the Koreans. One cannot but wonder if this is the South Korean government.

Park also said that “the virus is spreading in a certain religious group.” On the same day, an official of the presidential office told reporters that “you may be well aware where a considerable portion of confirmed cases after the nation’s 31st patient came from.”

They meant the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious group. The 31st patient was the first member of the church to be identified as a COVID-19 patient.

It is true that the virus spread quickly because many followers of the church gathered for worship. But the government gives the impression that it is shifting the blame.

Protecting public lives is one of the most essential duties of a government.

Several foreign countries barred South Koreans’ entry soon after the recent surge in the number of patients in Korea. Chinese provincial cities quarantined all of the passengers on a flight from South Korea regardless of their nationality.

But the Moon administration did not do so. Park said too many Koreans arrived from China each day, so there was little the government could do.

This is not a matter about which the people can just say “We understand. That’s fine” and turn a blind eye to the government’s negligence.

The failure to block the influx of infection sources early did huge damage.

Wednesday alone saw 284 new confirmed cases of infection. As of 4 p.m. that day, a total of 1,261 patients were reported, including 12 who had died.

And not all of the patients are Shincheonji followers. Infections of those who have nothing to do with the sect are on the rise throughout the country.

Asked why the government ignored recommendations made by the Korean Medical Association seven times for blocking infection sources from China, Park said, “The Korean Society of Infectious Diseases, which is much more authoritative than the association, did not recommend the entry ban for the entire area of China.”

But on Feb. 2 when the government announced entry prohibition to foreigners coming from China’s Hubei Province where Wuhan is located, the society said in its recommendation that “We are at the stage where restrictions on Hubei Province alone will fall short.”

The society also recommended two weeks of self-quarantine and symptom surveillance for all arrivals from China.

If the government followed the recommendations, it should have expanded the entry ban. But it limited the ban to Hubei, and still has not changed this. Though it did not do as recommended, it argues it did.

On Wednesday, a member of the ruling party’s supreme council dumfounded the people. Citing a foreign media report that quoted an expert as saying “the number of cases in South Korea seems high at least in part because the country has high diagnostic capability,” the lawmaker said that “paradoxically, the state system of South Korea is functioning well.”

It is true that South Korea conducts diagnoses relatively quickly with kits it developed, but is this a time for self-praise? More than 1,500 Koreans have been hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, about a month after the first patient was found Jan. 20.

The lawmaker looks as brazen as China’s leader Xi Jinping, who said on Feb. 6 that China’s strong measures (to fight the virus) were contributing greatly to the public safety of the world.

The fundamental responsibility for this situation lies with the government, which failed to cut off the influx of infection sources early.

But those in the ruling camp are taking their usual approach: blaming others and praising themselves. The word “apologize” is not in their dictionary.