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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 25)

All News 07:04 January 25, 2023

Lifting of mask mandate
Premature to let guard down fully

Korea reported 9,277 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total caseload to 30,008,756. The country broke the unwelcome record of 30 million three years and three days after it reported its first confirmed case on Jan. 20, 2020.

Considering there were about 5 million "unreported infections," some 70 percent of 51.6 million Koreans have likely been hit by the coronavirus. Add 28.5 percent who formed antibodies through vaccinations, and nearly 99 percent are immune to the virus -- for now. Can the nation move past COVID-19, then?

Probably not.

Reflecting the eased situation, health authorities will lift the indoor mask mandate next Monday, freeing people from face coverings except in some places, such as medical institutions and mass transit.

However, the nation should not let its guard down yet, at least for two reasons.

First, the statistics themselves are hardly reassuring. Given the population gap of about six times with the U.S., Korea is still seeing more daily infections than even the U.S., where health officials "seem to have given up on new cases," as some Korean experts put it. The daily deaths seldom fall below 30 and are also hardly negligible. These numbers would make headlines every day if they were caused by accidents, like car crashes or fires.

Second, there is China, the origin of the pandemic, which has yet to see its peak due to excessive lockdowns followed by an abrupt opening up. Korean -- and global -- experts are now nervously watching the situation in China, where explosive infections move from metropolises to provinces and possibly overseas like they did three years ago. Given that there could be more than 100 subvariants of the Omicron variant, the appearance of new lethal strains will be a nightmare for the whole world.

In retrospect, Korea has done relatively well fighting against the worst pandemic in a century. Besides their failures to close the border on Chinese arrivals right after its outbreak, health officials effectively controlled COVID-19 with their "3-T strategy" of testing, tracing and treating. As always, however, the Korean people, who have seldom complained about one of the longest mask mandates worldwide and endured other conveniences, deserve greater credit.

However, it is questionable if the Yoon Suk Yeol administration will finish the COVID-19 fight equally well.

With the near-complete lifting of the mask mandate, health officials and the media say now is the time for "self-quarantine," stressing personal hygiene. Still, there is much work left for the government to do. Above all, the Yoon administration is doing too little to raise the booster vaccination rate, especially among older adults, who account for over 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths. The government should provide more incentives and take other steps to jack the booster vaccination rate.

More importantly, the incumbent government seems ill-prepared if another pandemic hits the country.

Nothing shows this better than the finance ministry's decision to scale down the National Medical Center (NMC). The previous administration planned to rebuild the NMC into a global institution specialized in dealing with infectious diseases. But the incumbent one will reduce it to a far smaller "neighborhood clinic," saying there are already many large hospitals in Seoul.

These finance ministry officials are penny-wise but pound-foolish.

During the pandemic's peak two years ago, the so-called Big Five hospitals could not accept COVID-19 patients with underlying diseases for fear of infecting other patients. Many had to die even though sufficient beds were available at private hospitals. The ministry could save 61.5 billion won ($50 million) by reducing some 200 beds at the NMC, but will have to pay 10 times the amount as compensation to private hospitals to treat patients for one year.

Experts here and abroad say the world will have to live with one pandemic or another due to environmental destruction.

It is worrying that some political leaders and bureaucrats have learned too little in the last three years.

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