|President Moon Jae-in, right, during a visit to Daegu on Feb. 25, 2020 Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
The national health emergency unleashed by COVID-19 has dealt a crushing blow to President Moon Jae-in, with public criticism on his poor crisis management capacity and leadership growing as the epidemic is far from being contained.
A huge part of the criticism is about the government's decision to ban the entry of foreigners only from China's Hubei Province, the epicenter of the new coronavirus, instead of the entire country. Many believe that the government's failure to do so, despite calls for the complete entry ban in the early stages of the epidemic, was one of the biggest reasons for the rapid spread of COVID-19 here. Korea now has the largest number of infections after China.
A petition posted on Cheong Wa Dae's website calling for President Moon's impeachment has gained tens of thousands of signatures.
Posted on Feb. 4 when the country had less than 20 confirmed cases before seeing a sudden hike in infections, the petitioner said the government only banned the entry of people from Hubei, belatedly, after 62 countries had placed an entry ban on people from all of China. The person said Moon acted like "the president of China, not Korea."
"The number of confirmed patients is increasing here, and even New Zealand, which has no confirmed cases, has a strong entry ban in place," the petitioner wrote. "To the President of Korea, protecting Koreans is the most important thing. If he thought so, he should have placed an entry ban on people from all areas of China."
The person continued that while the price of facial masks was rising and they were being sold out, the President provided 3 million masks to China.
More than 600,000 people had signed on to the petition as of Wednesday afternoon ― Cheong Wa Dae is required to answer a petition that garners more than 200,000 signatures in a month.
As to the Moon administration's continued stance that the current restriction on people from Hubei Province is enough, many ― especially among the opposition bloc ― said Moon has put a priority on realizing a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at an earliest date rather than implementing stringent measures to protect public safety by implementing the ban. On Feb. 20, Moon called Xi and reaffirmed his support for China in dealing with the virus, saying "China's difficulties are our difficulties."
The main opposition United Future Party floor leader Rep. Shim Jae-cheol said China's difficulties have indeed become Korea's difficulties. "Now Korea has the second-largest number of patients following China, the source of the virus, and Koreans are now banned from or quarantined in 25 countries even without prior notice," he said at a party meeting at the National Assembly, Wednesday. "Now even China is restricting Koreans' entry."
Moon is also being criticized for misjudging the epidemic. During a meeting Feb. 13, Moon said that the epidemic would be stopped by the end of the month. But a few days later, infections erupted in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, bringing the seriousness of the situation to a new level.
Regarding the remark, a Cheong Wa Dae official said Wednesday Moon's comment was made before the new situation took place, and it was aimed at providing the people with relief from their anxiety by emphasizing the government's containment efforts.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) has added fuel to the negative public sentiment on the ruling bloc, after party spokesman Hong Il-pyo, while talking about quarantine measures, said Tuesday that the government would lock down the Daegu-North Geyongsang Province area as a preventative measure.
"The government did not place an entry ban on Chinese nationals to curry favor with Beijing, while saying Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province could be locked down as if the virus originated in that region. It insulted all Koreans and the region," Rep. Shim said.
Only hours after Hong's remark, the DPK, relevant ministries and even the President said the lockdown comment was wrong. But it was not enough to soothe the anger of people in the affected regions.
On Wednesday, Hong resigned from the spokesman position and apologized to the people of Daegu.