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Officials say moving crisis level up to “alert” stage would damage South Korea’s national image

The South Korean government continued to keep the crisis level for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) at “caution,” even as some public agencies and local governments are already acting as if an alert were in place.

As a reason for the decision, the administration cited concerns about “hurting the national image.”

The administration has established four levels of crisis management response to prevent the spread of communicable diseases: “attention,” “caution,” “alert,” and “severe.” The second of them, “caution,” goes into effect when a new strain of communicable disease enters the country from abroad.

Government officials have been keeping the crisis response level at “caution” since the first case of MERS was officially confirmed on May 20. The focus at the “caution level” is more on systemic cooperation than on a proactive response from government agencies or local governments.

Many are now saying the situation with MERS has reached the point where it should be classified at the “alert” stage. According to the government manual on crisis management for communicable diseases, the alert stage applies to situations in which a new strain has entered the country and spread to different regions.

New infections have now been found under most of the country’s local governments, including not only Gyeonggi Province, the location of the first MERS hospitalization at St. Mary’s Hospital in Pyeongtaek, but also Seoul, South Chuncheong Province, Daejeon, North Jeolla Province, and Busan. Meanwhile, there has been a growing number of tertiary infections, or cases in which transmission has been diagnosed after contact with a person who contracted the virus through secondary infection.

As of Tuesday morning, there were seven deaths from MERS, with 85 people infected and 2,892 in quarantine.

The city of Jeonju in North Jeolla Province upgraded its crisis concern level from “caution” to “alert” on June 5 and began operating an emergency response system to prevent an additional spread of the virus. It is generally considered unusual for a local government to independently upgrade the crisis concern level for a virus such as MERS.

The standard manual for communicable disease crisis levels is written by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and serves as a practical guide on specific details of the response for government agencies and teams operating on the front lines. But with the situation already reaching severe levels for public transportation areas with a direct impact on the virus’s spread, including railroads, airplanes, and buses, the response there is now being tailored to the “alert” level.

“At the ‘caution’ level, the measures are things like installing sanitizers and putting up notices,” explained a source at KORAIL, the country’s national railroad operator. “With more and more cases of MERS being discovered, we’re now operating at ‘alert’ level by going around with masks and heat detectors to prevent any further spread.”

Meanwhile, the administration continues to keep its response at the “caution” stage. During a Q&A session on top government concerns at the National Assembly, New Politics Alliance for Democracy lawmaker Rhee Mok-hee asked Minister of Health and Welfare Moon Hyung-pyo the reason for the decision.

“If we move up to ‘alert’ status, it has a negative impact on the national image, and it has been confirmed that MERS is currently only being transmitted within hospitals,” Moon replied. “That’s why we’re keeping the status at ‘caution.’”

Rhee went on to say that the international community “already knows what a mess the Republic of Korea’s measures have been.”

“The only way to prevent MERS from spreading is with a pan-governmental response headquarters where the Prime Minister is taking charge of things and the President is in command,” he offered.

 

By Kim So-youn, staff reporter

 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/695119.html


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