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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 9)

Editorials from Korean dailies 06:59 December 09, 2022

Time to take off masks
How to switch from coercion to autonomy matters

Koreans in the central provinces of Chungcheong are like Americans in the Midwest region in some ways. Chungcheong people speak the slowest among Koreans, and people from other provinces make fun of their dialects. They also respond slowest to external developments and do not readily show their feelings. As a result, the two provinces often determine vital election results like the states of Iowa and Ohio do in the U.S.

So, it was interesting and unexpected to see South Chungcheong Province and its bordering metropolis Daejeon were the first among the 17 local administrations to decide to take off face masks. However, their moves show that Koreans' patience with the last remaining COVID-19 restriction has finally worn out. That, and some political calculations, will likely speed up the government's "demasking" timeline from March to January. It must do so without much ado.

Epidemiologically, wearing masks is one of the three most potent weapons in the battle against COVID-19, along with vaccination and handwashing. A U.S. report said students in precincts without an indoor mask mandate showed twice as many new virus cases than those maintaining it. More recently, a U.K. report reaffirmed why people used to wear masks to prevent catching colds during winter long before the outbreak of the ongoing pandemic ― to protect immune cells in the nostrils.

However, it's time to focus on the opposing sides of wearing masks. Korea is the only country with the indoor mask mandate among 34 member nations of the OECD, a club of rich, industrialized countries. The epidemiological effectiveness of wearing masks indoors also disappeared under the current environment. For example, people laugh and talk ― and, of course, eat ― without masks at restaurants, but wear them at payment counters. How ridiculous!

More importantly, mask-wearing hinders children's development of language and emotions. We must not let our kids grow into callous stutterers. Even more importantly, if less substantively, it's a matter of collective self-esteem. Among all nations of the world, China has "most successfully suppressed" the pandemic. But few foreigners praise, much less envy, the communist superpower, knowing well the price Chinese people had to pay for it. Korea's last remaining COVID-19 rule is like that in some ways, albeit unreasonable to directly compare the two.

What's left is how to switch from coercion to autonomy. Global experts expect China to undergo a health crisis after its government abruptly drops its "zero-COVID" policy, yielding to escalating protests. Some predict up to 1.5 million COVID-19 deaths, citing the low vaccination rate among older adults and China's flawed healthcare system, which is too weak to transit to the living with COVID-19 system. Those have also been the reasons for Beijing to stick to the status quo.

Korea is, of course, different from its socialist neighbor. The country's COVID-19 death rate is among the lowest worldwide thanks to the high primary vaccination rate and mask-wearing. Now, its booster vaccination rate remains less than half of the targeted levels, and the latter is about to go. And these changes come when the nation's new virus cases and deaths rose to among the highest in the world. Korea's new virus cases are six times higher than America's, and its deaths are about 30 percent more, given the six-fold population difference.

All this explains why the Yoon Suk-yeol administration should do all it can to head off another winter surge and minimize the death toll. Since his campaign days, Yoon has called for "scientific quarantine" based on autonomy and self-responsibility. However, his administration has shown no scientific grounds to maintain the indoor mask mandate. The autonomy and responsibility, in other words, mean the government has done almost nothing except ride on the previous government's enviable records and aggravate them sharply.

It must jab far more people than now, mobilizing all incentives available instead of rebuking the two Chungcheong provinces. Koreans have demonstrated the world's best autonomy and cooperation. Now, it's the government's turn to show some "science and responsibility" and do its job to turn the pandemic into an endemic.

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