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[Editorial] Vaccine pass dispute

Government should allay concerns before going ahead with vaccination requirements for teens

A dispute is intensifying between parents and health authorities, largely due to deepening mistrust in the government’s COVID-19 policies for students and schools.

Starting in February, young people ages 12 to 18 will be allowed to go to cram schools, public study rooms and libraries only if they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or have a recent negative test.

Given the impracticality of frequent coronavirus testing, the government’s plan is widely seen as a virtual vaccination requirement -- and, for some parents, as coercion.

Online petitions have been uploaded on the presidential Blue House website calling for an end to the controversial “vaccine pass” system.

The main reason for the uproar lies in the government’s constantly shifting COVID-19 policies. Instead of transparently disclosing data and offering a detailed explanation as to why the vaccination of youngsters serves public safety, it merely stresses that side effects from the shots are minimal. Many parents view the introduction of the vaccine pass system as forceful and hurried.

The government’s initial misstep was loosening the social distancing rules under its “living with COVID-19” plan last month. In hindsight, South Korea was not fully ready to implement a phased return to normal, as demonstrated by the subsequent spike in new cases, with daily figures breaking one record after another.

Skepticism also mounted about whether the government was assessing the virus situation correctly on Nov. 29, when President Moon Jae-in met with officials to discuss COVID-19 and stopped short of reimposing strict social distancing rules.

As expected, President Moon’s complacent reluctance to reverse course backfired. New infections remained at dangerous levels, and the omicron variant began spreading in Korea. It is regrettable that the government belatedly began to tighten the social distancing rules before extending the vaccine pass system to 16 high-risk facilities, including cram schools and libraries.

With the upcoming inclusion of minors in the vaccine pass system, some parents and students have expressed frustration and anger. The planned restrictions are unfair and constitute a violation of their right to learn, they say.

In an interview with a media organization on Tuesday, a mother whose teenage daughter has yet to be vaccinated due to concerns about potential side effects said she cannot understand why the government has changed its vaccination policy for teens. It went straight from a recommendation to a forceful mandate, extending even to cram schools.

She pointed out that the government’s vaccine pass system is inconsistent. The access restrictions will not apply to schools, where students spend long hours, or to other crowded places such as supermarkets and department stores.

Many parents and students are concerned about side effects from vaccines. A host of unconfirmed anecdotes are circulating in online communities about severe aftereffects such as heart inflammation.

Cram schools and public study rooms are not high-risk facilities as long as proper safety measures are taken, such as ensuring adequate ventilation, some operators say.

But the government did not spend enough time explaining to parents why it changed its policy, much less allaying fears by disclosing detailed data and other medical information.

From Nov. 29 through Dec. 5, the number of students infected with COVID-19 climbed by 3,948, an average of 564 students per day. Most of those youngsters were unvaccinated, as the vaccination rate for students aged 12 to 15 is less than 15 percent. Given that children can bring infections home and rates of infection in youngsters have been higher than for adults in recent weeks, the government has good reason to push ahead with its plan.

But the government’s forceful imposition of inconsistent public health policies, and its failure to fully address real concerns about side effects, is likely to deepen the public’s mistrust.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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