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S. Korean vice health minister credits people for flat curve

Second top health official looks back on four months of frantic fight against virus

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip speaks to reporters on Wednesday at a conference hall in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Health Ministry)
Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip speaks to reporters on Wednesday at a conference hall in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Health Ministry)

Ministry of Health and Welfare’s second in command Kim Gang-lip said all eyes were on South Korea amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the country was among the first to be hit by the disease and then to emerge past the worst peak.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Kim said the way the Korean Health Ministry became the center of coronavirus attention at home and abroad was “unlike anything he has seen” in his over 30 years of service.

The ministry has received “overwhelming” requests from international counterparts for sharing how it was handling the outbreak, he said, as Korea was being perceived as one of the few countries with “more favorable prospects” of rebound from the virus-stricken economy.

“Every step we take is being watched,” he said. “But I always say it’s the people, who are doing an incredible job of abiding by the safety recommendations.”

Kim said while zero new local cases is the ultimate goal, the viability of it happening remains uncertain.

“As much as I’d like to tell the Korean people and myself that we are nearing the end of this tumultuous battle, the virus is still here as much as it was during the peak in February,” he said.

“We’ve certainly gotten used to the presence of the virus in our reality and its spread is being controlled, but that doesn’t mean the threat is gone,” he said, adding, even the health authorities did not know if or when the virus was going to go away.

Kim said he stepped up for the job of delivering the daily briefing on the coronavirus after his meeting with citizens protesting the setting up of quarantine facilities in Asan and Jincheon in January.

He said he believes the resistance stemmed from “vague fear” about an unfamiliar disease.

“In the early days of the outbreak, our understanding of the virus was incredibly limited and panic was pervasive. But now we know we have a safe system -- everyone has to test negative twice before they are released at the end of the isolation period.”

He said that in times of crisis, the government must communicate transparently and inform the public accurately to “not let fear take hold,” and that once he explained the stakes, Jincheon and Asan residents showed “amazing tolerance.”

Since the first case was reported on Jan. 20, the Health Ministry and the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have held daily coronavirus briefings except for the parliamentary election day on April 15.

Kim, who represents Korea at the World Health Organization as part of the executive board, said the coronavirus has proven health security cannot be sustained by individual countries alone in an interconnected world.

“A health crisis in one region can easily travel across borders, which is why cooperation and solidarity are critical in securing global health against emerging dangers,” he said.

Speaking about the government’s post-coronavirus ventures, Kim said one of the most imperative tasks was giving the KCDC more autonomy.

“There could be another public health emergency after the coronavirus and preparations have to start early to avoid future stumbles,” he said.

Some changes have to come in terms of our work culture, too.

The disease control agency’s recommendations for taking three to four days of leave when feeling unwell to stem the spread in communities was hard for him to follow, the vice minister admitted.

“All my life, I’ve been taught to believe showing up for work and not missing a day whether sick or healthy was a virtue. This is something that has to change for our own health and safety of those around us.”

By Kim Arin (