By Jang Ho-jong
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What’s behind the new wave of Covid-19 in South Korea?

This article is over 3 years, 9 months old
Issue 2720
The government signalled that restrictions could be lifted
The government signalled that restrictions could be lifted (Pic: ⒸJo Seungjin)

A new wave of Covid‑19 infections hit South Korea from mid-August—and the government is chiefly to blame.

President Moon Jae-in’s government had designated 17 August as this year’s holiday to commemorate national independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. The government distributed tourism and travel coupons to encourage spending.

Of course this signalled approval for relaxing distancing rules.

As a result in the last couple of weeks we saw nearly 5,000 new confirmed cases, amounting to a quarter of the cumulative total.

This time, the outbreak is concentrated in the Seoul Metropolitan Area, home to half of the country’s population.

Over 20 percent of new cases are untraceable. Isolation units are already filled to capacity, due to public hospitals accounting for a mere 10 percent of all hospitals.

New patients are having to wait at home until new space opens up. Death tolls are rising.

The Moon Jae-in government, ever concerned about the “economy”, is doggedly trying to keep social distancing rules at its current–intermediate–level.


When even the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention demanded social distancing rules to be raised to the highest level, the government reluctantly suspended or limited the operating hours of a host of commercial facilities.

School classes have all been moved online except for students in the highest grade.

Still, nothing is being done that could hamper the operation of factories and offices.

In consequence, workers are having to leave their children at home when they go to work. With government subsidies expiring, dismissals and unpaid leaves are on the rise, while airlines and other businesses are starting to downsize.

The government announced in July a plan to bolster public medicine by increasing the number of doctors. The Covid-19 crisis had made the public painfully aware of the shortage of medical personnel.

The number of doctors in South Korea is 2.4 per thousand people, significantly below the richer countries’ OECD average of 3.4.

The government plan, however, fell far short of meeting the needs of the public and didn’t even mention building new public hospitals.

Without an increase in spending on public health, most of the newly added doctors will be absorbed by private hospitals and clinics.

Moreover, the government plan was intended in part to supply more researchers for private hospitals and the pharmaceutical/biotech industry.

Doctors in training struck to defeat the plan. Trainee doctors are opposed to the very idea of increasing the supply of doctors, fearful that it would threaten their future income.

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

We certainly cannot support such a position.

Trainee doctors are forced to work under terrible working conditions. For the most part, trainee doctors have tolerated this situation out of hope that once they complete their residency, the medical “market” would adequately reward them.

Hence their resentment at a measure to increase the supply of doctors.

But to truly improve their situation, trainee doctors need to fight for greater investment in public medicine and for better working conditions—and not only against the government but also against their own employers.

Moon Jae-in is taking a tough stance against the doctors’ strike, accusing them of endangering lives during the new wave of Covid-19. However, it is Moon Jae-in’s government itself that truly has endangered people’s lives.

Moon Jae-in’s betrayals are sowing disillusionment and frustration among the mass of people. Workers need to fight back against the state, even in an age of pandemic.

Jang Ho-jong is a member of Workers Solidarity, Socialist Worker’s sister organisation in South Korea. He is a journalist and a doctor. This article was translated by Chun Kyung-nok

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