A masked medical worker in Seoul. Cracks are beginning to appear in South Korea's pandemic policies. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones

SEOUL – The global community has been full of praise for South Korea’s Covid-19 response but local doctors are more downbeat. They give their government a “C.”

Officials of the Korean Medical Association unleashed a battery of grievances on Friday from the bureaucratization of the national response to self-satisfied PR efforts to a surprisingly sluggish vaccination program.

The government “put politics before medical advice,” alleged Choi De-zip, president of the Korean Medical Association, which includes all doctors licensed in the country.

He accused the administration of failing to consult appropriately with the KMA, resulting in “hasty and sloppy policy-making [that] faced opposition from physicians.” This had “demoralized physicians and undermined trust,” Choi said.

Choi’s colleague Choi Jae-wook (no relation), president of the Korean Society of Global Health, was scathing about the authorities’ self-congratulatory approach last year.

In a country where the letter “K” is routinely attached to nouns to connote a global Korean success – K-pop, K-film, K-drama for example – he slammed the government for taking a triumphant approach to Covid containment via the brand “K-quarantine.”

“The so-called ‘K-quarantine’ is not a word used by any scientist or medical staff, it is only used by politicians,” Choi seethed. Citing the seriousness of the global pandemic and the high death toll, he said, “It is a very shameful word.”

A medical staff member wearing protective gear takes a swab from a woman to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a temporary testing station outside Seoul station in Seoul on December 14, 2020. Photo: by Jung Yeon-je/AFP

More substantively, Choi chastized Seoul for not immediately closing its border to travelers from Wuhan, China; for belated preparation of contingency measures; for late adjustment of social distancing measures; and for maintaining an overly bureaucratic anti-pandemic task force.

He also made an accusation that is being widely leveled at the Moon Jae-in administration by the conservative opposition.

Delayed vaccinations

“From the second half of last year, the Korean government was too proud of itself and failed in appropriately preventing other waves [of infection],” he said. “And it also failed to secure vaccinations in a timely manner.”

He suggested a far more urgent approach should have been taken in 2020.

“Procurement should have been done as if we were in a war,” Choi said, citing with admiration the Israeli government’s moves. But Korea’s health authorities, “lost the timing to procure,” he said.

As a result, President Moon was forced to make a high-profile intervention  – phoning the heads of global drugmakers in person. “We at least we in the medical community – were shamed with the president calling CEOs of drug makers asking to supply vaccines,” he said.

The US, UK, EU and China have already vaccinated tens of millions of their citizens. Neighbor and rival Japan – another latecomer commenced inoculations this week. But South Korea will not even begin until February 26 and that will just be the first wave aimed at at-risk medical workers.

Inoculations of the general population will not get started until September, with the government aiming for herd immunity – 75% of the populace – in November.

South Korean troops disinfect the forecourt of the main rail station in Daegu, South Korea. Photo: AFP

Choi was not confident that the government’s target would be reached.

Korea, with a population of 51 million, will need to vaccinate 36 million people to gain herd immunity. That means 66 million doses of the various vaccines that have been pre-purchased to be injected in the next eight months, or 400,000 people per day.

But Choi said authorities have not yet told the KMA where the manpower to carry out this task will come from, and has not been briefed on national planning. Choi warned that vaccine deliveries cannot be counted upon.

Sour grapes?

Despite these scathing critiques and worried forecasts, the country’s no-lockdown response has granted it the best economic performance in the OECD for 2020, while granting it some of the lowest numbers of infections-per-million and deaths-per-million in the developed world.

And the late vaccination approach may even offer South Korea some benefits, said Yum Ho-kee, chair of the KMA’s Covid-19 Countermeasure Task Force’s Professional Committee.

Currently, the lack of clinical trial data for senior citizens has raised suspicions over the Astra Zeneca vaccine worldwide, but by the time Korea is ready to deploy it to the elderly, those concerns may be overcome.

“Astra Zeneca does not have enough data for people over 65,” he said. But with the massive vaccination programs underway around the world, he expected that data to reach critical mass imminently. “If we wait one to two months, we will have data,” he said, adding that he is confident that the vaccine will work effectively after second doses are given.

Asked to grade Korea’s pandemic response to that of other nations, Choi grudgingly gave the nation an “A”  – though in his opinion this was due, firstly, to a sensible and compliant citizenry, secondly to the medical profession, and only thirdly to policymakers. Choi offered the public an “A,” his colleagues a “B” and the government a “C.”

Thousands of doctors, medical students and healthcare professionals wearing face masks and protective equipment rally against a government proposal to increase its annual intake of medical students on August 14, 2020, Seoul. Photo: AFP/Chris Jung/NurPhoto

While its criticisms of the government may well be germane, another reason for the KMA’s bile is a battle it engaged in with the government last year.

The medical community rose up in arms over Seoul’s plans to expand the number of doctors – who in Korea, as elsewhere, consider themselves a small elite. A turf war was also in play.

Last August, amid the pandemic, doctors went on strike to protest the government’s expansion of the profession and for granting Oriental medicine an increased share in national health insurance.

The strike, involving 16,000 interns and residents – the core of the country’s emergency and intensive care unit doctors – dragged on for two weeks before normal services were resumed after negotiations.

 “The government tried to establish public medical schools and increase the capacity of medical schools,” Choi said. Calling it political warfare against the medical society, he said the struggle had been lamentable.