South Korean President Park Geun Hye is trying to show her government can contain the spread of a deadly virus as the outbreak threatens to overshadow a planned U.S. trip to meet President Barack Obama.
South Korean lawmakers, including a member of her own party, have urged Park to consider postponing her five-day trip from June 14 until there are clear signs authorities have curbed the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome. Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung Hwan vowed Tuesday to end the MERS crisis by the end of this week. The outbreak has claimed nine lives in the country and infected 108 people, more than in any country besides Saudi Arabia.
Park’s approval rating has fallen to near an all-time low over the government’s handling of the outbreak, which threatens to damp economic growth as travelers avoid the country and consumers stay home. The latest crisis for Park comes weeks after the anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster, which revived public grief and discontent over the government’s handling of the sinking that killed more than 300 people.
“She really desperately needs something momentous that’s positive to redefine her legacy, otherwise it’s Sewol,” John Delury, a political science professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said by phone. “This is having the opposite effect. It reminds everyone of many of the same things that didn’t go right then or are not going right now.”
So far the disease has been contained to hospitals. Still, thousands have already canceled trips to the country and many South Koreans are avoiding malls and restaurants for fear of the disease, threatening to sap consumer spending and demand. Goldman Sachs cut its 2015 economic growth forecast on June 9 to 2.8 percent from 3.3 percent, partly because of the potential impact of MERS.
“The MERS outbreak is sure to hurt consumer spending and growth numbers for the third quarter, which might put mild, but not definitive, pressure on the central bank for another interest rate cut,” Victor Cha, a senior adviser for risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence in New York, said in an e-mail.
Eleven out of 18 economists surveyed by Bloomberg see the Bank of Korea cutting its benchmark rate to 1.5 from 1.75 when its policy board meets Thursday.
“Any tough, evil disease can be overcome with the determination to beat it,” Park said Tuesday at a Cabinet meeting, ordering a “stern” response to rumors that exacerbate public fears. “The government will no matter what prevail in this situation together with the people.”
Park had not made her first public mention of MERS until a June 1 meeting with her aides, 12 days after the first confirmed case, and health ministry officials took 18 days to release the names of hospitals treating cases of the disease.
“It is valid to question why there was such a long delay between detecting MERS and the public health response to stop its spread,” Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Britain’s University of Reading school of biological sciences, said by e-mail. “The initial response was mishandled.”
Political fallout from MERS and the backlash against Park may grow if infections continue to rise, Hong Sung Gul, a political science professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said by phone.
“It’s excessive to place all blame on her for the spread of MERS,” Hong said. “Yet the final responsibility lies with her, and she has a chance to turn the situation around by making aggressive public gestures that she’s doing all she can to fight MERS.”
Odds may be on her side. The number of new cases rose by 8 on Tuesday, compared with 23 reported on Monday and 22 on Sunday. Expressing “cautious” optimism, Health Minister Moon Hyung Pyo told lawmakers on Monday that the spread had reached its peak.
“After the initial stage, the government is adequately complying with measures guided by the international standards of the World Health Organization,” Song Dae Sub, a professor of pharmacy at Korea University in Seoul, said by phone. “When this goes away, we would definitely see more effective measures or laws being made by lawmakers and policy makers.”
Song is a member of a joint South Korea-WHO group investigating the outbreak.
Park is scheduled to meet with Obama on June 16 and return home on June 19. She reaches the mid-point of her single, five-year term in August this year.