SEOUL: South Korea’s growing MERS outbreak has laid bare the country’s poor handling of disasters despite President Park Geun-Hye’s pledge to overhaul public safety measures following last year’s ferry disaster, experts say.
Since the first case was diagnosed on May 20, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has spread at an alarmingly rapid pace in Asia’s fourth-largest economy, infecting 166 people and killing 24 of them in less than a month.
Experts blame a combination of bureau-cratic inefficiency and poor crisis manage-ment and training, creating mistrust and public anxiety and shaking public confidence in the very foundations of the country’s “miracle” development model.
Almost all infections occurred in hospitals and experts from the World Health Organization said they saw no evidence of transmission of the virus in communities outside hospital settings.
But this has failed to reassure the public, with online messaging services being flooded with retweeted news flashes and rumors about contaminated hospitals and people under quarantine.
The government has come under attacks for its inadequate initial response, feeding the argument that little has changed since the Sewol ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high-school students.
Park at the time vowed sweeping efforts to overhaul the country’s lax safety standards, including the establishment of the new ministry of public safety and security.
But the new ministry had done little to help deal with the MERS crisis, said Park Won-Ho, professor of political science at Seoul National University.
“The government just kept creating a new state body whenever a new crisis occurred, which rather hurt the consistency of public administration,” he said.
Park Ji-Young, professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, also said little had changed in the government’s ability to deal with a crisis since the Sewol tragedy.
“Bureaucratic inefficiency, disregard for a crisis manual and the lack of training and education to deal with a crisis all remain the same,” he told AFP.
The health ministry was also criticized for withholding details about the outbreak including the list of hospitals where outbreaks occurred.
Succumbing to public pressure, it belatedly disclosed the names of the hospitals on June 7, but by then the virus had infected 64 people, killing five.