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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 31)

Editorials from Korean dailies 06:52 December 31, 2020

Mass infections in prison
Take effective steps to prevent further spread

The Seoul Dongbu Detention Center has emerged as one of the nation's largest COVID-19 infection clusters, showing the government's inability to cope with the resurging coronavirus pandemic. The prison reported 792 infected people ― 771 inmates and 21 officers ― as of Wednesday morning, according to the Ministry of Justice. This represents the largest number of confirmed cases in a single facility since the outbreak of the coronavirus here in January.

Worse still, one inmate died while receiving treatment at an outside hospital after being confirmed positive for COVID-19. More worrisome, some 80 infected inmates were found to have attended hearings at the Seoul Northern District Court and the Seoul Eastern District Court in mid-December. This is the reason why we cannot trust the government's assurance that the prison cluster is unlikely to spread to other facilities.

The detention center is an apartment-type facility with five 12-story buildings. Unlike other detention centers equipped with spaces for outdoor activities, the Dongbu Center is vulnerable to mass infections as inmates can engage in only indoor activities in the packed space.

The justice ministry cannot avoid criticism for having failed to take proper steps in the initial stages. It should have taken quarantine measures ― including isolating patients and testing all inmates and workers ― to stop the spread at the minimal level.

The first infection at the detention center was reported Nov. 27, followed by an additional case Dec. 5. Despite growing signs of a mass infection, however, the center failed to conduct testing on all inmates and employees until Dec. 18.

The center was found to have failed to provide masks to inmates until the first case was discovered. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae belatedly visited the center Tuesday amid the worsening situation there. Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun offered a public apology Tuesday, saying he was sorry for not preventing an infection cluster in a government-managed facility.

Prisons are unusually vulnerable to COVID-19 infections as they are densely populated in limited spaces. Yet the government has been negligent in taking disinfection steps. Some say the government paid little attention to the inmates as they are regarded as socially marginalized. At any rate, the ministry should be held responsible for not preventing the infections. Its irresponsible attitude could undermine the credibility of the Moon Jae-in administration.

The people at large have been suffering from growing inconveniences in their daily lives amid the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. The self-employed and small business owners, in particular, have been in serious financial straits. Against this backdrop, it is deplorable to see the worst case of quarantine failure emerged in the state-run facility.

Though belatedly, the authorities should take all possible steps to prevent a further spread of the pandemic by, for instance, effectively quarantining patients and securing hospital beds for the seriously ill.

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