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Opinion

[Lee Kyong-hee] Ringing out the pandemic year -- with hope

As 2020 draws to a close, a loud sigh will be heard around the world. But the daunting battle against the COVID-19 pandemic remains. It is as widespread and deadly as ever, a situation unimaginable on New Year’s Eve last year, when China first informed the World Health Organization about a “pneumonia of unknown cause” spreading in Wuhan.

The Johns Hopkins University tally, so far, has counted more than 76 million cases and some 1.7 million deaths around the planet. Just-released vaccines finally signal an end, but not soon enough to prevent many more COVID-19 deaths.

Harder to quantify but no less astronomical is the physical and emotional toll. Medical workers have toiled with little or no rest, oftentimes lacking supplies and protective wear. No less exhausted are other essential workers whose service requires person-to-person contact. And growing ever direr is the financial woe of those who have lost their jobs and businesses because of forced closures and absent customers.

The scars in the hearts of innumerable people who have lost their loved ones to the disease will not fade easily. Those who were not even allowed to say goodbye to their parents, spouses and friends dying alone in hospital rooms or nursing homes will struggle to overcome the heartbreaking void.

Of course, the pain and fear of coronavirus patients is foremost. A BBC report from India, which is second to the United States in cases, gives a vivid description of the long-term symptoms of COVID-19 as well as the doctors’ despair and frustration. The Dec. 12 report describes the situation in Rohtak, some 90 kilometers from the capital, New Delhi:

“The woman had recovered from a severe bout of the infection after spending a month in critical care in summer and returned home, on oxygen. A month later, she was readmitted. She was suffering from lung fibrosis, an irreversible effect of COVID-19, where fragile parts of the lungs become damaged even after the infection is gone.

“During her second spell in critical care, which lasted three months, she wrote a series of notes to her doctor. ‘I don’t want to live. Take me off the tubes.’ ‘You shouldn’t have saved me when I had COVID in summer.’ The patient died soon after, despite all efforts to save her.

“More than 1,400 kilometers away, in Mumbai,” the report continues, “a patient, a young man and sole family breadwinner, had a stroke, days before he was expected to go home after recovering from COVID-19. He was paralyzed for two weeks before he died. The cause: a blood clot in the lungs, called pulmonary embolism which can happen in some coronavirus patients.

“Here was a young man, responding to all medication, recovering steadily, beating the virus and getting ready to return to his family. And then, out of the blue, there was a setback and all was lost.”

Here in South Korea, relative success in containing the virus has been eclipsed by a large, unforgiving wave of infections. As the daily cases surpass 1,000, people’s concerns over insufficient hospital capacity are rising. Some of the infected have died in their homes while waiting for hospital admission.

This is simply absurd. For months, medical experts have urged ramping up the number of intensive care beds and medical personnel to prepare for the winter. Similarly, the government cannot avoid blame for its vaccine strategy. It should have moved more prudently but quickly to get early access to COVID-19 vaccines and have drawn up a detailed nationwide vaccination program.

An accompanying information campaign is also needed to overcome residual skepticism left from flu vaccines in the early fall. The government’s promotion of vaccines against the usual winter flu had sound intentions: Fewer people with the flu going to hospitals would help alleviate the strain from COVID-19 patients. Unfortunately, the flu vaccines were wrongly blamed for deaths. Although public panic has subsided, misgivings linger about vaccines.

Looking back on the passing year, one can say that the nation weathered similar fiascos amid the health crisis and social and economic dislocations caused by the ravaging pandemic. Most exhausting has been the chaos from the government’s ineffective housing policy and the endless political slugfest surrounding “prosecution reform.” Particularly, the latter was an issue out of line with the concerns of most ordinary citizens. In both cases, insensitive attitudes and irresponsible remarks of some politicians added to public chagrin.

The current administration promised to eliminate speculation from the housing market to benefit innocent homeowners and tenants. To that goal, the administration has so far rolled out 24 sets of measures since its inauguration in May 2017. The result: apartment prices in the capital have jumped 58 percent. The average family’s dream of owning a home --preferably a decent apartment in a good school district -- has evaporated.

Home prices in cities across the country are spiking upward again, exacerbating the expanding gap between income groups. Especially for the younger generation now in their 20s and 30s, this has been a brutal turn of events in the pandemic year when income inequality has already worsened.

COVID-19, as is widely said, is not an equal-opportunity virus. This virus has revealed inequalities between and within countries. It has even aggravated existing inequities. And it will likely stay for a while longer. Then another virus may appear.

As we embark on the New Year, I hope that leaders of all segments of our society will think about what they can do to help shape the world after this awful virus is gone. The post-pandemic world will surely be different from the one we have known. It may display even greater inequalities -- in education, work and income -- but will also pose new opportunities in a new global environment. 


Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.
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