South Korea is depending on the military to help oversee the country’s coronavirus vaccination programme as Seoul races to make up for a late start in inoculating its citizens for Covid-19.
Jeong Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, vowed to safely deliver vaccines close to people’s homes as South Korea attempts to inoculate 70 per cent of its 52m people by September.
“Our military will take care of any unexpected crises in the delivery process. It will provide support for personnel, delivery and safeguarding in order to strengthen the vaccine distribution system to ensure public safety,” Ms Jeong said.
Seoul has won international praise for its comparatively strong handling of the pandemic — particularly its mass testing and high-tech contact tracing systems that were rapidly rolled out and have been sustained over the past 12 months. But concerns have grown after South Korea slipped behind other countries in launching vaccination campaigns.
The ambitious plan to catch up will entail 50,000 frontline coronavirus workers receiving Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs in the coming weeks before health officials move on to 780,000 first responders, contact tracers and residents and workers at care facilities for elderly people.
Over May and June the government aims to vaccinate those aged over 65, the remaining healthcare workers as well as the country’s homeless population — about 10m people in total.
But the big challenge will start from July, health experts said, when officials will begin vaccinating the general public with the aim of achieving herd immunity by November. The BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will also be widely used.
Up to 250 vaccine centres will complement tens of thousands of clinics and hospitals.
While inoculations will be delivered by private logistics companies, the military will be responsible for monitoring the delivery and safe storage of vaccines. South Korea’s large armed forces, which mostly exist as a deterrent to North Korea, will assist with deliveries to remote areas and have been authorised to work with police to clear traffic and provide security throughout the rollout.
South Koreans have high trust in officials such as the indefatigable Ms Jeong, who has fronted Korean media throughout the pandemic, despite the government being blindsided by a wave of infections in December.
While most citizens are expected to follow the government’s directions to receive the jabs, public concern has been rising over their safety.
This anxiety has been stoked in part by the government, which cited safety concerns in a bid to dispel criticism about its late vaccine procurements. Like Japan, South Korea is running extra tests on the shots to make sure they work on people of Korean ethnicity before clearing their use.
Confidence in the rollout has helped underpin hopes of a rapid economic recovery in South Korea.
Lee Jae-gap, a professor of infectious medicine at Hallym University, warned that public trust stemming from the initial testing and tracing success could quickly dissipate if problems emerged.
“How the government handles a potential problem in a transparent and efficient manner will decide the level of public trust in vaccines. Inoculating people without an accident in March and April will be the key to the success of the vaccination.”
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong