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Doctors protest budget cut of state hospital for infectious disease control


Dispute grew on Thursday over the Finance Ministry's budget cut of a state-run hospital, a decision that doctors say undermines years of efforts to strengthen state control of infectious diseases.

A group of doctors with the National Medical Center Specialist Council staged an online signature campaign on Tuesday to protest the ministry's decision, addressing fears that the state hospital would not be able to counter the growing threats of viruses if not enough investment is made to fully modernize its facilities and operations.

"The Ministry of Economy and Finance's (budget cut) is a misjudged decision to scale down (the operation of) the National Medical Center. The construction of (a separate unit in charge of infectious diseases control) is needed to build an effective safety net," said a spokesperson of the council at a press conference.

The Finance Ministry's budget cut of 61.5 billion won ($50.2 million) deals a blow to the previous government's plan worth 1.23 trillion won to rebuild the hospital along with two auxiliary units for quarantine and critical care, according to the doctors. By scaling down the budget, the number of sickbeds, an indicator of the hospital's capacity in medical treatment, was reduced to 760 from 1,050. The reduced plan also sabotages public expectations of having a specialized unit for infectious diseases in particular, a scheme supported by a donation of 700 billion won made by the bereaved family of the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee in 2021, they added.

Founded in 1958 with foreign aid to deal with public health crises, the National Medical Center has been the last bastion of South Korea's battles against critical viruses including COVID-19, SARS and MERS, doctors said in the statement. Discussions to rebuild the 65-year-old hospital began in 2003. But the plan was delayed due to difficulties in securing the necessary budget, despite a series of virus outbreaks in the last 20 years, they said.

By Lee Jaeeun (