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Korea MERS outbreak: trade unions say Save people's lives, protect workers' safety

17 June 2015
Unionists demonstrate in Korea against Government inaction on MERS
The Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU) has monitored the government’s response to the MERS outbreak since the first MERS confirmed case on 20 May 2015. On 29 May, KHMU President Yoo visited the National Medical Center and announced that the government should set up a comprehensive action plan at the state level. KHMU formed a special taskforce team to monitor the situations associated with spread of the respiratory virus nationwide.

On 14 June 2015, 4856 people had been isolated, there were 145 confirmed cases of MERS and 14 people had died as a result of the virus.

On May 30, Noting the government's failure to present an efficient initial response, KHMU demanded that the government release the list of MERS-affected hospitals and districts and upgrade the position of the MERS control tower.  However, rather than meeting the demands, the government announced that those who circulate groundless rumors about the viral disease would be punished.

The KHMU website has been posting updates in the newly built MERS situation board and around 120,000 citizens have so far visited the site. Interestingly, the press has reported KHMU’s response activities and the union has received a flood of interview requests.  

With more and more infected patients and faced with increasing public criticism, the government eventually revealed the list of MERS affected hospitals and associated information for the first time on 7 June. However, this only happened 90 days after the first confirmed case was reported and subjects to control reached 2,000.

This demonstrates that the government’s failure in initial response and ongoing attitude has been worsening the crisis.

During three successive press conferences, KHMU has urged the government to have the Blue House function as a control tower; issue a general mobilization order nationwide; and set up an emergency support system for public healthcare organizations.

A total of 36 out of 122 confirmed cases came from Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital where the first MERS patient was reported while 68 came from Samsung Seoul Hospital, which is run by Samsung Group and is notorious for union free management. The anti-union hospital is currently shifting the responsibility to the government. Civil society has requested the government to conduct a broad epidemiologic investigation and control/manage the hospital, rather than defending it.

Under the circumstances, healthcare workers’ safety is more urgent than any other matter. One doctor was already infected, and is currently in a serious condition. The number of nurses in Korea is only a third of the OECD average. Facing the MERS outbreak, such a small number of nurses cannot help but to work overtime day and night for tens of days in a row. Moreover, public hospitals represent only 10% of the total healthcare facilities and private hospitals are unwilling to take MERS patients. Workers in public hospitals even work on installing temporary air -depressing equipment, as low-pressure isolation units are very short in the public facilities.   

Furthermore, security guards, caregivers and young workers who are mostly working in irregular job positions are exposed to higher risk in such poor facility conditions. Combining all, KHMU has urged the government to take immediate and comprehensive measures. The union has also canceled all other official schedules. Distributing on-site safety manuals to the union members, the national level healthcare workers’ union has made its all-out effort to manage the current crisis under the slogan, “Save People’s Lives, Protect Workers’ Safety.”

Read more on the KHMU Website:  http://bogun.nodong.org/english/

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