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Inspection into COVID-hit warship brings doubt

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Suh Wook (center) apologizes for a massive COVID outbreak that forced an anti-piracy unit to return home from Africa. (Yonhap)
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Suh Wook (center) apologizes for a massive COVID outbreak that forced an anti-piracy unit to return home from Africa. (Yonhap)
The military’s decision to launch an inspection into the COVID-19 outbreak that forced its anti-piracy unit to return home from Africa has sparked concerns, as the military plans to run the examination itself without outside experts that critics say are needed for an independent inquiry.

The Cheonghae Unit, which cut short its mission, was found to have been sidelined from the vaccine priority list. It was left out from the March vaccination campaign because of supply constraints; it was overlooked again in June, when the military secured extra US-provided Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Critics say the military, without outside advisers, could be soft on its members accused of having missed out on opportunities along the way to vaccinate the 301-strong crew. They arrived Tuesday with more than two-thirds of its crew infected. The tally reached 271 on the second round of tests done here.

“The military dropped the ball big time. Someone else should put it under a microscope,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum. He said the public would not accept the inspection’s findings anyway because the military had already lost their confidence.

“The military’s response has been a litany of excuses from start to finish,” Shin said.

The military said the seamen could not handle a possible allergic reaction to the vaccine or manage the extreme storage conditions for the vaccine onboard. Critics say the military could have avoided that with help from either the nearby US Navy or local authorities in Africa.

“Or we could have flown vaccines and medical staff to the seamen. They were just airlifted from Africa and I think it could and should work the other way,” Shin said, adding the naval unit could have avoided the worst outbreak in the military since the pandemic started last year.

The military suspects the outbreak started on July 2, a day after the destroyer left a nearby port where it had made a four-day supply stop. A military cook first exhibited COVID-19 symptoms, followed by others. But medical staff onboard allegedly determined they had a cold, disregarding evidence demonstrating otherwise.

No seamen reportedly had come into any suspicious contact with local people who helped them to load supplies onto the ship. Nor had any crew member gone missing, according to the Defense Ministry. But it has yet to offer conclusive evidence.

The 10-member inspection team, whose members were picked by the ministry, began work Thursday. The team will run the inquiry through Aug. 6 and extend it if necessary, the ministry said.

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