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Doctors' strike shows cracks in South Korean unity against COVID

Politicians spar over virus surge as physicians fight plans to widen their ranks

South Korean medical school students discuss their plans before going on strike to protest the government's health policy reforms in Seoul on Aug. 26.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- Choi Dae-zip, chairman of the Korean Medical Association, said this week that South Korean doctors are in a battle -- not against a public health crisis, but against their government.

Choi was speaking during a livestreamed interview marking the start of a three-day general strike by his organization, which has 130,000 members. The health care professionals are protesting plans by the national government to increase the number of doctors in the country by 4,000 and create a public medical school.

He acknowledged that the strike is going ahead while South Korea is grappling with its worst coronavirus outbreak yet. "There will be inconveniences, but I hope the people of this country will understand that we had no other option than to strike," Choi said.

Not everyone sees it that way.

The doctors are garnering criticism that they are shirking their duty when the country needs them most. With the strike set to run through Friday, and politicians also sparring over who is to blame for the COVID-19 resurgence, there are growing signs that South Korea is splintering after putting up a largely united front against the virus for months.

On Thursday, the country recorded 441 new coronavirus cases, the latest in a more than weeklong string of triple-digit increases. The figure was also the highest since March.

Public health authorities used aggressive testing and contact tracing to bring the country's first major outbreak in February and March under control, but they have said that the current rise in cases is more dangerous. Many infections have been detected in the densely populated capital area and clusters have popped up around the country.

The government has ordered the protesting doctors to return to work, amid reports that some hospitals were limiting hours and delaying surgeries. "If, through this strike, doctors lose the trust of patients and the public, it will be hard to regain that trust," Lee Hae-chan, leader of the ruling Democratic Party, said at the National Assembly on Wednesday. "To overcome this current wave, quarantine officials, local governments, doctors and the public all need to unify."

Cho Hae-jin, a lawmaker with the opposition United Future Party, compared the strike to "sticking a knife in the back of the front-line response."

But politicians themselves are anything but unified over who bears the responsibility for the latest COVID-19 wave.

Many of the newly reported infections have been tied to a right-wing church that organized a large rally in Seoul on Aug. 15. Health authorities have expressed concern that, as with the first major outbreak earlier this year, church members may be reluctant to come forward for testing.

Members of conservative civic groups march during an anti-government protest in Seoul on Aug. 15.   © Reuters

While the left-leaning administration of President Moon Jae-in has said the rally participants irresponsibly risked public health, the opposition has accused the government of inconsistent messaging. In the spring, the government eased social distancing recommendations and encouraged the public to go out and spend to revive the economy.

The political right has also pointed out that the Moon administration approved a large public gathering to mourn the death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, a close political ally.

Critics in the medical community have said the government moved too quickly to get back to normal. In a statement this week, a coalition of medical associations, including the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases, called for enacting the strictest possible social distancing guidelines, as the authorities still have not completed contact tracing of infections linked to the rally.

"The quarantine measures will only be effective if they are applied early," the statement said. "The medical system has endured for a long time and is rapidly reaching a state that will be difficult to maintain. If we don't succeed with quarantine, we can't protect various parts of society, including the economy."

At a meeting on Thursday, Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said the government is working on further stimulus moves to prop up the economy, including measures to support small businesses.

But now comes what some fear could be a prolonged standoff between the government and doctors who fear an already tough market is about to become even more crowded.

The Korea Medical Association says 16,000 members are taking part in this week's strike. Due to concerns over the coronavirus, no large public gatherings are planned, and the group will instead hold three days of livestreamed content featuring members from across the country under the slogan "Together, we are hope."

Park Jae-young, a medical doctor and executive editor of the Korean Doctors' Weekly, says the government's plan to increase the number of physicians would not solve personnel shortages in rural areas and in certain areas of medicine, such as thoracic surgery.

"To resolve the problem, they are saying that we need more doctors, and if we have more doctors, there will be a trickle-down effect, some doctors will move to rural areas and into certain specialties," Park told the Nikkei Asian Review. "But many doctors don't agree with the government's argument."

Park suggested the answer to insufficient care in rural areas is to build more public hospitals, or to grant doctors freedom to charge more for their services.

He said doctors feel betrayed by the government's move to mandate policy changes without consulting with medical professionals.

"Doctors feel like, we are doing our best to overcome the crisis in spite of difficulties and irrational policies, but the Korean government has done nothing to support doctors, other than just saying 'thank you.'"

Bridging the gap between the two sides may prove difficult, even as the virus outbreak intensifies. "Politicians are emotionally very upset," Park said. "It's a game of chicken."

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