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[Editorial] Responsible leadership

Moon should not spare apology to ensure concerted efforts to fight virus

During his meeting with the leaders of four political parties last week, President Moon Jae-in secured a bipartisan commitment for cooperation in fighting the novel coronavirus that has been spreading rapidly in the country.

They promised to quickly pass an extra budget the administration plans to submit to the parliament this week to fund efforts to contain the infectious disease, COVID-19, and ease its negative impact on the sluggish economy.

Bipartisan cooperation is essential for fighting the epidemic outbreak, which is threatening to spiral out of control.

As of Sunday morning, more than 3,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 17 deaths, were reported across the country. South Korea has the largest number of infections outside China, where the respiratory virus emerged in December.

Most churches and other local religious institutions have made the right decision to halt regular services and gatherings in the coming weeks, which health care experts say will be a critical period for containing the virus spread.

During Friday’s meeting, Hwang Kyo-ahn, leader of the main opposition United Future Party, urged Moon to offer a public apology for his failure to properly respond to the virus outbreak.

Moon made no mention of the demand, while saying he was sorry about the shortage of face masks needed to help protect people from the infectious disease.

This is not time to fuel political strife with the issue of the outbreak. Any attempt to do so should be blamed and halted.

But this does not mean he should not be subject to criticism for the way his administration has dealt with the virus.

Rather his sincere apology for what has proved to be an ill-judged response is needed to ensure concerted efforts to bring the disease under control.

Buoyed by a lull in the occurrence of new cases, he said the virus spread would come to an end soon. But shortly after, the number of infections began to surge.

Late last month, the government unveiled a plan to provide face masks, medical gloves and disinfectants to China to help in its fight against the disease. This move has drawn criticism here as the country is now struggling with a shortage of such items.

More controversial is Moon’s persistent hesitation to impose an entry ban on visitors from all parts of China, despite repeated calls from health care professionals and a public petition signed by more than 700,000 people online to do so.

The administration has not gone further beyond belatedly barring visitors from Hubei province, where Wuhan -- the epicenter of the epidemic -- 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.”

At last week’s meeting, Hwang called for a blanket ban only to be rejected again by Moon.

The president said taking such a step now would have little actual effect, if things might have been different at the early stage of the virus outbreak. His remark prompts a question why he did not move quickly at the start.

Moon also said a total ban on entry from China would make Korea subject to similar measures from other nations. He was apparently unaware or turned a blind eye to the fact that more than 70 countries around the world, including China, have already advised against travel to parts of Korea or imposed restrictions on entry of Koreans.

His hesitation to impose a blanket ban on visitors from China might have stemmed partly from concerns about the impact of the move on the economy. As some critics note, however, he might also have dragged his feet on taking the measure in order not to hurt the environment for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Seoul. After his phone conversation with Xi on Feb. 20, a spokesperson for Moon said the Chinese president has reaffirmed his plan to push for the visit in the first half of this year as agreed earlier, while Beijing made no mention of the matter.

Moon told political leaders last week it was undesirable to make a political issue of the entry ban on Chinese visitors.

That may be so. But he also needs to admit that he should have been more active in banning entry from China without being bound by considerations other than public health.

A survey of 1,001 adult Koreans conducted last week showed 64 percent of the respondents still want a blanket ban on the inflow of visitors from China, with 33 percent feeling no need to do so.