Seoul mayor: Swiftness, transparency, citizen response key in Covid-19 crisis

By Andres Sanchez Braun

Seoul, June 5 (efe-epa).- Swiftness and transparency, as well as the response of citizens, play key roles in managing the Covid-19 crisis in Seoul, one of the densely populated cities in the world, Mayor Park Won-soon said in an interview with EFE.

Park, 64, said that following the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 in South Korea, especially Seoul, which recorded 103 of the total 183 infections, the city council learned the importance of two basic elements – “speed and transparency”.

Thus, by Feb. 21 this year, two days after the first community outbreak was recorded in South Korea and with 150 cases detected nationally, Seoul had already banned demonstrations and closed spaces such as public sports facilities.

“One of the keys is a rapid response rather than a sluggish response because this is an infectious disease that we were seeing was spreading very fast,” said Park, seated in his office in the city’s iconic glass building in Sejong.

Criticism of the authorities’ response in 2015 and their decision to keep much data regarding the disease a secret “so as not to create panic” led to a change in legislation and the management procedures regarding such outbreaks.

As a result, in the current Covid-19 crisis, the authorities have been ready with transparent disclosure of figures and information.

“Once we confirm the infected person, we immediately disclose the case as well as the ones that happened because of direct contact. We try to test as many people as possible, and disclose the movement of the positive cases to other citizens so they can take precautions,” the mayor said.

Seoul and its surrounding areas, home to 26 million people or half of the country’s population, have been the epicenter of novel coronavirus infections in South Korea.

For weeks, this region accounted for nearly 90 percent of all positive cases in the country as a result of hotspots in different parts, including a street known for its nightlife in the Itaewon neighborhood.

“(However), we have managed to control Covid-19 relatively well compared to other places,” said Park.

“We have a lot of confirmed cases (924 as of Friday) but we have managed to keep the death rate low to almost near zero. I think it’s because we managed to defend our hospitals and elderly care centers, such as nursing homes, where there are many vulnerable citizens,” he added.

Park considers in any case that “the biggest success during this Covid-19 pandemic was attributable to our citizens, to their mature citizenship.”

The people of Seoul, he said, have “cooperated from the outset” with the authorities by exercising caution, voluntarily presenting themselves to be tested when called, and accepting quarantine measures.

“Thanks to this, without any lockdown or shutdown of our public transportation, we have been able to keep our city, which is home to 10 million citizens, functioning,” he underlined.

According to Park, the outbreak at Itaewon, where 270 cases were detected, has served to correct errors and showed “how vulnerable enclosed spaces are.”

It led to orders for closing down clubs and discotheques and rolling out measures for other leisure spaces, such as the use of QR codes to know who has entered each site.

This system, he argued, will strictly be per the law, to protect citizens’ privacy, and “we will only be using that information for disinfection and containment purposes and we will destroy such information within four weeks.”

Park, serving his third consecutive term after first being elected mayor in 2012, is a unique figure in the South Korean political landscape.

A pro-democracy and human rights activist since his time as a law student during the military dictatorship – when he was imprisoned for four months, he has championed the fight against inequality during his stint as mayor, while also bringing up the issue in the context of the coronavirus crisis.

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