SEOUL, July 20 (Reuters) – South Korean prime minister and defense minister apologize as hundreds of sailors infected with COVID-19 were transported to Seoul on Tuesday after a patrolling Navy destroyer off Africa has been riddled with coronavirus.
Nearly 250 of the 301 unvaccinated crew aboard Destroyer Munmu the Great have been infected, the largest cluster of COVID-19 military cases in the country, sparking public fury over the government’s failure to protect those who serve abroad. Read more
“I apologize for not taking better care of the health of our dedicated soldiers to the country,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said at a COVID-19 intra-agency meeting as he promised treatment and recovery support for the crew, 12 of whom were in critical condition.
Defense Minister Suh Wook apologized for not immunizing the crew before leaving for the Gulf of Aden in early February for an eight-month anti-piracy mission, and said he would review the anti-virus policies for all military units overseas.
The rare double apologies underscored the smoldering anger in South Korea over the handling of the pandemic as a fourth wave of infections swept through the country with just 13% of the 52 million people fully vaccinated amid drug shortages. vaccines.
The destroyer left South Korea just weeks before authorities launched a national vaccination program. Authorities have decided that inoculation at sea will not be possible due to limited emergency responses and cold storage requirements for some vaccines, the Defense Ministry said.
But opposition lawmakers said the government should have called for help from other countries or replaced the crew with vaccinated personnel, and urged President Moon Jae-in to apologize and fire Suh.
“The government has revealed its own incompetence by giving lame excuses such as transportation problems, that it has no diplomatic power to ensure cooperation from neighboring countries,” said Kim Ki-hyeon, leader of the main opposition party People Power.
Moon said he would accept criticism of the “insufficient and complacent” treatment of the issue, and ordered improved measures to ensure the health and safety of troops and diplomats serving overseas.
Opposition lawmakers also blamed the initial poor responses for exacerbating the outbreak aboard the destroyer, as a sailor who first reported symptoms on July 2 was only given cold medicine .
The military initially used less accurate antigen test kits and only began using large-scale polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests when six members were confirmed infected on July 15, said Han Ki-ho, a member of the opposition People’s Party who sits in parliament. parliamentary committee on defense.
THE CREW ARRIVES HOME
The 301 crew members – members of the well-known and popular Cheonghae anti-piracy unit – were due to arrive in Seoul on Tuesday after the government carried out an emergency aerial evacuation.
Critically ill people will be hospitalized and the others infected taken to treatment centers, officials said. The minority who tested negative will be retested and kept in isolation at military facilities.
They have been replaced on the destroyer by an immune crew of 200 who will lead the ship home for the next 50 days.
Some Korean reports suggest the sailors contracted the virus from contaminated food brought on board while the ship was docked at an unspecified port near the Gulf of Aden to purchase supplies from June 28 to July 1.
Lee Sang-won, an official with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), said on Tuesday that the likelihood of infection from eating or touching food was low. The KCDC would open an investigation once the crew returned home, he said.
South Korea is battling its worst wave of COVID-19, while struggling to boost its vaccination campaign amid global supply shortages and shipping delays. Read more
The country has largely been successful in overcoming previous waves of COVID-19, aided by a massive system of tracing and testing. But only 31.7% of its 52 million people received at least one dose of a vaccine on Monday, far below many other advanced countries.
The KDCA reported 1,278 new cases as of Monday, bringing the country’s total to 180,481 infections, with 2,059 deaths.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; edited by Jane Wardell
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