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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 24)

All News 06:53 February 24, 2020

Uphill battle against virus
: Take pre-emptive steps to avoid catastrophe

It is getting harder and harder to contain the spread of the new coronavirus here. The quarantine network has already become porous since last week when South Korea began to report the largest number of infections outside China. Now, the first thing the government should do is reinforce the network to fight the highly contagious COVID-19 effectively.

The government is facing criticism for failing to take bolder measures against the global public health emergency. However, it is fortunate that the Moon Jae-in administration has raised the country's virus alert to the highest level of "red." This adjustment is the first of its kind since a highly contagious influenza known as H1N1 hit the country in 2009.

The move, although somewhat belated, reflects how serious the situation has become since the country reported its first case of the coronavirus Jan. 20. In fact, the number of confirmed cases has soared at a stunningly alarming rate over the past several days. Under the top alert level, the authorities can take emergency measures such as banning public activities and closing schools temporarily. It will also become easier to mobilize medical resources, personnel and equipment to control the virus.

It is important to take timely and pre-emptive steps to properly respond to the worsening emergency. Timing is crucial in the fight against an epidemic. The coronavirus appears to be smarter than humans, overwhelming our quarantine and health care system. Pessimism is growing that we may be fighting a losing battle with the virus. But we should not and cannot yield to the disease.

Also at issue is the government's temporary entry ban on travelers from China's Hubei Province, whose capital of Wuhan is the epicenter of the novel coronavirus. There are growing calls for the expansion of the ban to cover all of China.

Regrettably, the Moon Jae-in administration has turned a deaf ear to such calls apparently in order not to anger Beijing. Of course, Seoul needs to be cautious to avoid any unnecessary diplomatic row with the world's second-largest economy and Korea's largest trading partner. However, further delaying the adoption of a total ban could put Koreans at a greater health risk as the situation is getting worse.

On Sunday, the country reported its sixth death from the virus; and 169 new infections were confirmed, increasing the total number of patients to 602. Three of the dead had been hospitalized in Daenam Hospital in the southeastern city of Cheongdo, where over 110 people, including nine medical staff, tested positive for the virus. More than half of all the cases were related to prayer services of the Shincheonji Church in the nation's fourth-largest city of Daegu, and neighboring Cheongdo.

The church must follow a government ban on religious gatherings faithfully and cooperate in tracing those who have come into contact with confirmed patients. It should not sabotage quarantine measures on its believers. No religious organization should be exempt from the emergency steps.

Now the authorities should mobilize all possible means to check the spread of the virus. It is also imperative to tighten the quarantine network and consolidate the health care system to treat the exploding number of patients. Leave no stone unturned to avoid the worst-case scenario.

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