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[Industry News] Disasters escalate into human-made calamities via new technologies


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect the position of The Korea Times_ ED.

By Oh In-gyu

March 11th was the ninth anniversary of the East Japan earthquake and tsunami that led to casualties of close to 20,000 dead or missing people. This figure is more than three times that of the 1995 Hyogo earthquake that killed close to 6,000 people.

As we all know, the 3/11 earthquake in 2011 escalated into a major calamity because of the resulting tsunami, which was responsible for 90 percent of the total deaths.
 

However, the devastating aftermath of the calamity was a forced abandonment of massive areas of land due to the subsequent meltdown of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

Radiation pollution, a clear human-made disaster, turned the earthquake and tsunami into a greater unforgettable catastrophe in postwar Japanese history.

When new technologies like nuclear power are developed and adopted widely by the government to replace conventional forms of energy like coal burning or hydraulic turbines, the developers of new technology must convince the public officials of their efficiency (cheaper), effectiveness (works better), and safety (less pollution).

Until the 3/11 debacle, few Japanese people doubted the three benefits of the nuclear power plants, and they even believed that the new power plants were the "best and most advanced" in the world.

Automobiles are another convincing example.

When car developers successfully convinced public officials in their respective countries to build more paved roads and highways for the widespread use of the gas fuming, horseless moving vehicles, no one realized how deadly they could be in terms of the sheer number of accident related deaths.

WHO proclaimed that 1.35 million people were killed by automobile accidents in 2018 alone, whereas the same organization declared the coronavirus or COVID-19 to be a global pandemic on March 12th.

So far, this new coronavirus has claimed more than 6,000 deaths worldwide. That's a figure for the two months since the outbreak of the pandemic. If we multiply that number by six, there would be slightly more than 36,000 deaths in one year if the number of deaths remained at the same level.

Although that number, 36,000, is far less than 1.35 million (annual death toll for those who were killed in traffic accident), we call it pandemic, whereas car deaths are treated as normal or routine.

The South Korean government has claimed that its newly developed technology of diagnosing COVID-19, currently supplied to the government by a couple of bio startups, is the reason why the country has had a huge increase in the number of total infected patients and deaths from COVID-19.
 

A patient in a biocontainment unit is carried on a stretcher at the Columbus Covid 2 Hospital in Rome, Monday, March 16. / AP-Yonhap
A patient in a biocontainment unit is carried on a stretcher at the Columbus Covid 2 Hospital in Rome, Monday, March 16. / AP-Yonhap


The Minister of Health and President both congratulated each other on developing the testing kit and preventing the disease from spreading further because of how the new technology was able to diagnose patients quickly.

They both argued that the high figure of more than 8,000 cases as of today is simply clear evidence of how advanced the testing kit is because no other country, especially their neighboring country Japan, could test and diagnose as many patients as South Korea did.

On the surface, the story is very promising to the South Korean pharmaceutical industry that is considered behind that of Japan (second largest in the world) or that of Switzerland (number 1 in the world). For example, these bio startups struck a big deal with a Chinese medical distributor to market the testing kit in China. Furthermore, major newspapers in South Korea praised these companies' success in receiving European export clearance certificatse for exports to Italy, France, Germany, and elsewhere where the virus is rapidly spreading.

However, the entire process of the governmental promotion of the new testing kit is dubious at best.

For example, why does the government insist on using the testing kits, even as it is more urgent to quarantine major structures, such as hospitals, churches, the army barracks, and schools of all kinds (see my Korea Times article on March 9th). To many in South Korea and elsewhere, it seems high time to develop vaccines or treatments for the virus rather than wasting resources in testing large samples of potentially infected patients.

Furthermore, by neglecting the vulnerable female population in poverty from the epidemic, the government has been indirectly responsible for more than 100 new infections that have just been discovered among call-center workers in Seoul, who mainly working-class young women. They are said to have been obligated to work without masks not to anger the calling customers. These female workers can be found in large numbers in call centers and churches, as these are the only places where they can make money and seek emotional solace.

The bottom line is we cannot be sure whether Korea's relatively low mortality rate is related to the testing kits. Since most of the patients tested positive of the Coronavirus are young women (see my March 9th article in The Korea Times), they are in a much better shape than those in their 60s and over who tend to die from the disease more easily than any other age group.

In fact, the high death-to-detection ratio in Italy is attributed to the majority of patients who are aged over 60. Without any clear evidence as to what has really lowered the death ratio in Korea, concentrating scarce resources in testing is grossly risky.

While the number of cases increases, the overall panic of society increases, and filing up hospital capacities in Korea. The economy is the biggest victim of the Korean-style epidemic where the number of patients increase constantly while the government tenaciously worships the new testing kits.

Furthermore, if the rest of the world emulates the Korean method of concentrating on testing without developing a cure or thorough quarantining of mega structures and individuals, the pandemic will continue for a longer period of time than expected, devastating the global economy.
 

In fact, Europe is trying to import Korean testing kits believing that it would lower the death-to-detection ratio. If the number of patients will increase due to constant and speedy testing, hospitals will quickly run out of beds and experience shortages of medical staff and supplies. Panic behaviors reported all over the world along with the rapid crashes in major stock markets cannot be stopped by the testing kit itself. We need global cooperation in the development of cures and vaccines for the virus as soon as possible. The world, including South Korea, should learn from Taiwan, where they have successfully contained the number of patients under 50 so far without committing gargantuan resources to testing.

With the false sense of hope that it brings in the absence of other prevention measures, it is very likely that this new testing kit from South Korea will be a new technology that can escalate the virus epidemic into another major human-made catastrophe of our time.

Oh In-gyu is professor of Social Policy at Kansai Gaidai University, Japan. He has been working in a government-funded research team in South Korea for the study of epidemics (2016-2020). He has also worked in Seoul for a private think tank that specializes in the prevention of nuclear catastrophes (2012-2014).
 

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