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(EDITORIAL from Korea JoongAng Daily on Feb. 21)

All Headlines 07:05 February 21, 2020

Put people first

The first death in Korea from the new coronavirus was confirmed Thursday. The number of people infected with the lethal virus has soared to 104, a shocking increase in just two days. Many of the new infections occurred in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, and transmissions have been pinpointed to a church. People undergoing tests for the virus skyrocketed to 1,633, a whopping increase of 484 in just a day.

The role of Patient No. 31 — a 61-year-old woman in Daegu who has never been to foreign countries and who allegedly had no contact with other patients — is fueling fear among the public. Nevertheless, the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) merely intensified public confusion by dismissing the possibility of the patient being a "super-spreader" of the virus.

In a 15-minute telephone conversation on Thursday with Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin, President Moon Jae-in pledged to offer all available government support to the fourth largest city in Korea. But many people were more struck by televised scenes of the president laughing aloud with Director Bong Joon-ho at the Blue House over the Academy Awards he received for the movie "Parasite." That was the image of the day, not the image of a head of state rolling up his sleeves to address a national emergency.

In a speech before a meeting Monday with officials from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, Moon warned about the "graveness of the situation." But after listening to countermeasures from Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, the president attributed dampened consumption and a sluggish economy to an "overblown scare." In a cabinet meeting the following day, he reiterated the word "emergency" and demanded extraordinary measures to cope with the deadly infection.

On Feb. 13, when no infection was reported for three days in a row, Moon said the infection would be over soon, which invited criticism from both opposition parties and the medical community. If he had the grace to accept their criticism sincerely, the public might have more faith in his government's efforts.

News reports say that visits to traditional markets by Moon and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun were originally scripted by their aides, who demanded mom-and-pop store owners talk about business, not politics. We suspect that the two leaders must have been worried about ordinary people blaming the government for their lousy business.

At times of a national crisis, a president's words are significant. Moon became president partly thanks to his vow to "not repeat the poor reaction to Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS] during the previous administration."

Moon must wake up. He must raise his level of crisis response to "serious" from "cautious," isolate infected people as quickly as possible, and also designate some private hospitals as quarantine facilities. To the opposition camp, he must make it clear that he has no intention to take political advantage of the crisis, and persuade his political opponents to cooperate with the government. Moon must not forget his 2017 presidential campaign slogan, "People come first."
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