Socialist Worker

South Korean socialist says, ‘Our government protects profit, not people’

The coronavirus has raised sharp political issues in South Korea, says Jang Ho-jong

Issue No. 2695

People wearing masks in South Korea to protect against Covid-19

People lining up to buy government-provided face masks - only two masks are allowed each week for each person (Pic: Workers Solidarity)


South Korea has one of the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths outside China.

The government’s big fear is falling corporate profits. That is what it has put first, and that is why there is increasing anger at its response.

In mid-February president Moon Jae-in announced that Covid-19 “will soon come to an end”. Deputy prime minister for economic affairs Hong Nam-ki urged people to go “back to normal economic activities”. That was reckless.

The desperate scenes of thousands of people standing in line for face masks shows how things have got worse.

South Korea’s health system is based on an insurance system and the large majority of hospitals are privately run.

Such a system is wholly inadequate at a time of crisis.

The government operates only 10 percent of hospital beds.

Patients who should be in hospital are told to stay at home because there is not enough room in the hospitals for them. Some have died in their homes.

Now the government is accommodating some patients in public buildings.

The level of hospital staffing in South Korea is the lowest among the OECD group of countries. With the outbreak of Covid-19, this led to a tragic death of a worker from overwork.

Epidemic

Hospital workers must be provided with enough protection gear and break times. We need more protective equipment, face masks, gloves, goggles. We need to produce more of these and increase staffing.

The government must mobilise all the facilities and staff in private hospitals to control the epidemic.

It is rapidly building isolation chambers in, for example, military bases where it has direct control. These measures must be extended to other hospitals.

But having sought to turn medical services into the medical “industry”, the government has shrunk back from such measures. It fears the impact they might have on the market. And workers are suffering the consequences.

For the past three years the Moon Jae-in government has been betraying ordinary Koreans’ hope for a better society. The government was losing popularity ahead of a general election on 15 April.

Its failings over coronavirus have led to broad sentiments that the ruling party should be punished in the election.

That is why the ruling party and the pro-government media are indulging in a witch hunt against a religious sect called the Shincheonji Church.

This 300,000-strong indigenous sect of South Korean Protestantism has rapidly gained popularity, especially among the youth, through criticism of the corrupt and hypocritical church establishment.

When cases of Covid-19 soared among sect members in the south eastern part of South Korea, the mainstream church actively joined the witch hunt.

Now the government is chasing the sect’s members.

The mayor of Seoul, a major figure in the ruling party, sued the sect’s leader for “murder,” and the minister of justice ordered a raid on the sect.

But there are many other cases outside the sect. The witch hunt may serve as a distraction, but it cannot stop the crisis.

The spread of Covid-19 shines a light on the way society is run. There is no sick pay in Korea. That means virtually no sick workers can rest even when the government says, “Rest when you are sick.”

To let patients—suspected or diagnosed—stay at home we need to win paid leave.

When someone in a workplace is infected, it ought to be closed for at least two weeks.

But the government seems determined not to impose any temporary closure on businesses because it would hit profits.

Most factories and offices are doing their business as usual.

Workers thought to be infected are told to “self-quarantine” without getting paid. Discontent among workers is looming.

The government postponed the opening of all schools by three weeks.

Kids have nowhere to go, but their parents cannot take leave because they don’t get paid. Three children died in a fire while they were at home by themselves.

Protection

In some workplaces workers are provided with just one face mask per two weeks.

Distribution workers are one example of the lack of planning. Nobody takes responsibility for their safety.

Delivery workers have to buy masks and gloves with their own money—and often they are not available. It’s an ironic situation where the person delivering a mask can’t get a mask.

At one point the Ministry of Justice sent messages to people self-isolating in their homes by registered mail, which had to be signed for.

Courier workers visiting people had no proper protection.

The ministry changed its approach after protests broke out.

The virus has hit every part of society. Trade unions have stopped their events. Universities won’t be open until 30 March.

Even the Catholic Church cancelled mass.

We decided to stop printing the Workers Solidarity paper for three weeks, although we continue online as usual.

We have stopped our meetings and stalls for the same period.

But we continue to make demands for measures to combat the crisis, and to expose the government’s failures.

Jang Ho-jong is a journalist, doctor and member of Workers Solidarity, the sister organisation of the SWP in South Korea

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