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[Feature] From mask factories to hospitals, military wages virus war

Soldiers disinfect and sanitize buildings near a bus terminal in the southeastern city of Daegu, the area hit hardest by the COVID-19 epidemic, Feb. 29. (Army)
Soldiers disinfect and sanitize buildings near a bus terminal in the southeastern city of Daegu, the area hit hardest by the COVID-19 epidemic, Feb. 29. (Army)

From mask factories to hospitals, South Korea’s 600,000-strong military is making its presence felt on every battle front of the country’s war against the coronavirus.

Soldiers, officers, and military doctors and nurses have joined the government’s efforts to suppress COVID-19, which has sickened over 7,000 people and killed 50 here, while dealing a severe blow to the local economy and people’s everyday lives.

“Daegu and the immediate North Gyeongsang Province are the front lines. The situation is close to war. We need all manpower and resources available to stem the outbreak and to safeguard the life and security of the people,” Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said Friday. Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province are the regions hit hardest by the virus crisis.

Jeong was encouraging soldiers who had been deployed to Daegu International Airport and adjacent areas to conduct decontamination operations.

“The military should come forward when called upon during emergencies, and people need us now,” Jeong said.

Army vehicles disinfect and sanitize roads in the southeastern city of Daegu, the area hit hardest by the COVID-19 epidemic, Feb. 29. (Army)
Army vehicles disinfect and sanitize roads in the southeastern city of Daegu, the area hit hardest by the COVID-19 epidemic, Feb. 29. (Army)

The military fielded a team of experts from the Armed Forces Chemical, Biological and Radiological Defense Command to disinfect hospitals as well as other priority facilities in Daegu.

The anti-weapons of mass destruction command is assisting other municipalities in decontamination work, while additional units deployed armored combat vehicles to disinfect larger community areas such as schools.

“We do not have enough resources available to disinfect the campus or surrounding regions, but the military can, and that is just reassuring,” an official at Honam University in Gwangju said after the military decontaminated the campus.

Leading disinfection and sanitation work, however, is only one of the military’s missions in the ongoing national struggle.

Soldiers are working on weekends to help ramp up the production of protective masks, as the highly contagious respiratory virus triggered a massive surge in demand.

With factories scrambling to fill orders and shops selling out, soldiers are putting in extra hours to help manufacturers cope. 

Soldiers package protective masks at a factory in southern Gyeonggi Province on Saturday. During a visit to the factory, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo thanks the soldiers and vows to exhaust all avenues to stop the COVID-19 epidemic. (Ministry of National Defense)
Soldiers package protective masks at a factory in southern Gyeonggi Province on Saturday. During a visit to the factory, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo thanks the soldiers and vows to exhaust all avenues to stop the COVID-19 epidemic. (Ministry of National Defense)

“We were running a little short of labor here, unable to deliver the masks to where needed. But these soldiers, they came out on weekends and were of great help to make that happen,” said a factory supervisor at an Incheon-based protective gear firm.

Further, the military is providing medical staff and infrastructure to better treat patients.

Last week, the entire graduating class from its nursing officers’ training center embarked on its first mission at a military hospital in Daegu, which the government recently designated as a treatment center for COVID-19 patients. The nurses were joined by incoming military doctors.

Nurses officially commence work at a military hospital in Daegu, the city hit hardest by the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. The Korean government has designated the facility as a treatment center for the virus. (Ministry of National Defense)
Nurses officially commence work at a military hospital in Daegu, the city hit hardest by the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. The Korean government has designated the facility as a treatment center for the virus. (Ministry of National Defense)

“Patients come before me,” said nursing officer Lt. Kim Seul-gi at the graduation ceremony.

Just in time for the arrival of the extra medical staff, the military had expanded the 98-bed facility into a 303-bed hospital with more negative pressure rooms to speed up the efforts to contain infections.

Service members are also giving blood after steps to curb the spread of the virus prompted a sharp drop in the emergency blood supply. The military said its service members would continue to donate blood until a stable supply is secured.

“Humble and committed, we carry out our mission for the people and country. Let this donation be the seed of hope to share,” said Gen. Hwang In-kwon of the Second Operational Command.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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