The number of MERS patients in Korea has increased to 162 on June 17, half of them infected directly or indirectly via Samsung Medical Center (SMC). One of its patient transporters spread the virus to outpatients and visitors to the hospital. The hospital staff made the decision on June 15 to shut down parts of the hospital, including the entire emergency room. The transporter is said to have done his job for nine days after his infection, and the number of outpatients who visited the hospital during the period is estimated at more than 70,000. As of 6 am, June 17, a total of 6,508 people are in quarantine nationwide, and the number increased by 1,368 on June 16 alone. This is unbelievable, given that the SMC is one of the finest medical facilities in the country led by a former head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases and the current chairman of the board of the Asia Pacific Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
During the early stages of the infection, the Korean Hospital Association tried to disclose the list of hospitals infected with the virus, including the SMC, in order to set people at ease. However, the Ministry of Health & Welfare blocked the disclosure for reasons unknown and left, in particular, the SMC unchecked for a while, as if the hospital was a kind of sacred ground. Although it has yet to be found whether there was any collusion between the hospital and the health authorities, it cannot be denied that their nonsensical response during the early stage has compounded the matter.
Things might have been different if the authorities had allowed the disclosure of the list and taken appropriate measures on May 20, when the first patient appeared. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an early and transparent announcement is what matters the most in such cases. However, the Korean health authorities tried to hush things up, and then resorted to ill-founded optimism to add fuel to the fire.
It is the people that suffer damage under these circumstances. Their everyday lives are increasingly filled with fear about the disease spreading nationwide. Even President Park Geun-hye had to postpone her visit to the United States, and the domestic economy is groaning. Medical personnel had to see their colleagues fall victim to the disease.
The SMC, which detected the first patient, made a serious mistake and lost its opportunity to prevent the spread of the disease. Besides, negative impressions about Samsung are recurring to the people, such as its collusion with the government, reckless business expansion, and profit-centered management, which are far from the people's expectations of the nation’s leading business group.
“It is not Samsung but Korea whose defense line was broken,” the head of the infectious diseases division of the SMC said at a recent National Assembly hearing to cause severe criticism. The remark is only half-right, though. As mentioned above, the government did fail to take appropriate action in the early stages. Nevertheless, this is no excuse for the SMC.
Korea is one of the few countries where conglomerates run hospitals. The current situation shows that corporate social responsibility should come first, not profits, when it comes to the management of medical facilities, whether they are run by a company or not. The catastrophe might not have occurred if Samsung had adhered more to its responsibility as a leading member of society.
The health authorities and the SMC should be held accountable for having failed to block the spread of the virus and fear from day one. A thorough investigation will have to follow so those responsible are censured for what they did. Civil compensation for damages for the victims should not be forgotten, either.