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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 14)

All News 07:05 December 14, 2020

Avoid nightmare
Pre-emptive action needed against COVID-19

South Korea faces an ever-worsening public health emergency as daily new COVID-19 infections passed 1,000 for the first time over the weekend. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 1,030 new cases Saturday, 80 more than Friday's 950, sending the total caseload to 42,766. The figure is the highest since the first case was reported here on Jan. 20.

Health authorities are considering raising social distancing measures to Level 3, the highest under the five-tier system. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the government would have no choice but to ramp up antivirus rules to the top level unless the resurgent coronavirus is contained. His remarks came after President Moon Jae-in called the COVID-19 situation an "emergency" and ordered authorities to mobilize all possible means to bring the pandemic under control.

The Moon administration should not hesitate to enforce Level 3 measures. It can no longer take a complacent attitude. Medical professionals have stressed the need for pre-emptive action against the virus since the first wave of mass infections occurred in the southeastern city of Daegu early this year. The government, however, eased social distancing guidelines too early after the second wave hit the country in August and September.

Policymakers need to acknowledge a lack of vigilance and consistency in the fight against COVID-19. They had rushed to soften the rules in order to revive the pandemic-hit economy whenever the virus showed signs of receding. They knew better than anyone else that the coronavirus would resurge this winter as the cold weather creates better conditions for the virus to spread. There has already been warning of a "twindemic" ― a combination of a seasonal flu and the coronavirus. Regrettably, however, policymakers have ignored the looming health threats.

The authorities belatedly pushed social distancing steps up to Level 2 on Nov. 24 as new daily infections surged to more than 300. Then they again raised the level to 2.5 last Tuesday as the new cases continued to snowball. Health experts warn that the figure could skyrocket to 1,500 or even to 3,000 soon because of mass outbreaks at churches, schools, elderly care centers and hospitals as well as private gatherings, especially in Seoul and its surrounding metropolitan area.

If Level 3 measures are in place, they could result in a virtual lockdown, which will halt social and economic activities to a great extent. However, we should not fear such things if they are required to fight COVID-19. One may say it is difficult to expect the drastic steps to produce the desired effects immediately. But the country will stand little chance of defeating the virus without radical action.

It is imperative for the country to prevent the collapse of the healthcare system. Hospitals are running out of beds, while a growing number of COVID-19 patients are waiting for hospitalization. A Seoul city-run hospital is setting up makeshift beds in cargo containers. There is also an acute shortage of doctors, nurses and other medical staff. The Moon administration should do everything it can to secure sufficient hospital beds and mobilize more healthcare workers to avoid the nightmarish scenario.

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