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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 17)

All News 07:00 February 17, 2020

'Man-made disaster'
Korea must evacuate nationals from virus-hit cruise ship in Japan

The U.S. government plans to evacuate Americans from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship docked in Yokohama since Feb. 5 amid growing skepticism about the Japanese government's capacity to deal with the outbreak.

South Korea should follow suit immediately before it is too late. What is happening on the ship is hardly understandable. The ship is the biggest virus infection center outside of mainland China, and the number of confirmed cases there is soaring. Japan's health authorities confirmed 70 additional cases from the virus-hit Diamond Princess, Sunday, bringing total infections there to 355.

The problem is that more than 3,400 passengers and crew are still in danger. Japan initially kept all the passengers and crew confined to the vessel, but let passengers aged 80 or older, as well as their traveling companions, leave before the end of the two-week quarantine, last Thursday, as the situation on the ship spun out of control.

The Shinzo Abe administration should be held responsible for this fiasco. No doubt, the government's misjudgment and poor handling of the crisis worsened the problem. This is why many people around the world say that what is happening on the Diamond Princess is a "man-made disaster."

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo reportedly has sent an email to all Americans on board the ship to inform them of the U.S. government's "voluntary evacuation" plan. The passengers were asked to disembark and return to the U.S. on a chartered airplane for further monitoring.

South Korea should take similar measures immediately. The government has provided food, hygiene products and other commodities to 14 nationals ― nine passengers and five crew members ― via the consular office in Yokohama, but this does not protect them from the virus. The government should send a chartered plane to Yokohama and bring them home immediately, if they want to return, before it is too late. If Japan cannot handle the situation properly, the first thing it must do is to cooperate for a quick evacuation of foreigners from the ship. Reports show the 3,400 people who are still on board are from more than 50 countries.

For South Koreans, the disaster in Japan is reminiscent of the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014, in which 304 of 476 passengers ― mostly young students ― died. The tragedy is commonly regarded as a man-made disaster; many of the lives would have been saved if the government's rescue efforts had been conducted in a prompt and effective manner. The government's poor response to the tragedy and its questionable treatment of victims and their families worsened public sentiment toward then-President Park Geun-hye and ultimately became major factors for her impeachment two years later.

The Japanese government hastily implemented a lockdown of the ship to block the possible spread of the virus, but the measure left all passengers and crew vulnerable. Now many experts say the government's inappropriate quarantine measure helped the virus spread on the ship.

So far, the South Korean government has no responsibility for what has occurred on the ship. Fortunately, no South Koreans on board have yet tested positive for the virus. However, if the government leaves them in danger without taking adequate measures, it cannot avoid the responsibility if something goes wrong.

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