News & Statements

KPTU Healthcare Workers Solidarity Division Statement on COVID-19


* This statement was issued on 28 February 2020

A COVID-19 patient has died due to a lack of sufficient hospital beds,
yet still no plans to expand public hospitals?

- No plan for expansion of public hospitals in the 3 Corona laws
- The government must establish a plan to expand public healthcare and the public healthcare workforce
Yesterday a Coronavirus patient in Daegu who had been in self-isolation for four days died due to a lack of sufficient hospital beds. Despite having been clearly confirmed as infected, the patient died helplessly without receiving any treatment. It is hard to believe that this shocking and unprecedented event could have occurred in South Korea in the year 2020. Does it make any sense that a patient would die at home simply because there was no hospital space for them?

According to an announcement made yesterday by the Daegu City Government, 570 out of the 1017 individuals confirmed to have been infected have not been assigned hospital beds. As of today, the number of confirmed cases in Daegu has increased to 1132. The numbers are skyrocketing, and already over half of confirmed COVID-19 patients are unable to receive inpatient treatment. This fact indicates that another tragic incident like the one mentioned above could take place again.

The background to this incident is that the government has not taken steps to adequately expand public hospital capacity. The 198 state-designated negative pressure isolation hospital beds around the country are completely full. Add all of the 879 non-designated private negative pressure beds and it is still not enough to accommodate all confirmed COVID-19 patients. The government has now hurriedly announced it will secure up to 10 thousand negative pressure beds and designate specialised infectious disease hospitals. It is not enough, however, to simply increase the number of hospital beds. Additional healthcare workers have to be brought in in order for these hospital beds to be able to accommodate patients, but the necessary workforce simple does not exist.

In laying out its 5 year national plan in 2017, the Korean government set strengthening public healthcare as one of its 100 priority tasks and promised to increase the number of public healthcare facilities, strengthen community-based healthcare and reduce regional inequalities in healthcare services. This promise, however, has not been kept. Not a single additional negative pressure isolation bed has been added under the Moon Jae-in administration. The number of public hospital beds has increased by roughly 1700, but this number falls behind the overall increase in hospital beds. There are some areas where the proportion of public to private hospital beds has actually decreased since the time of the MERS outbreak. Plans for the establishment of hospitals specialising in infectious disease and a national public medical university have faltered.

The proportion of public healthcare facilities in Korea is among the lowest among OECD countries &ndash only half of the OECD average. Plans for increasing the healthcare workforce have also faltered. The number of doctors at public healthcare facilities continues to decrease. In response to chronic staffing shortages, the Moon government proposed legislation for the establishment of a national public health and medical university, but it has not moved forward in the National Assembly.

The government recently passed the 3 Corona Laws, but nowhere in this legislation are there plans for expansion of public hospital capacity. Despite the fact that the MERS outbreak made the need for public hospital beds and medical facilities abundantly clear, this need has not been met. The current chaos caused by the lack of public hospital beds and staff was easily predictable. Without a fundamental solution, any plans the government puts forward will only be temporary and the same problem will repeat itself in the future.

Most of the early confirmed COVID-19 patients received inpatient treatment at public hospitals. Despite their size, large private hospitals such as Asan Hospital, Severance Hospital and Samsung Hospital refused to take COVID-19 patients until just recently, when the lack of available beds became all too apparent. Now some private hospitals are accepting patients, or sending medical staff elsewhere to help. These hospitals, which usually boast of their extensive staff, were silent in the face of the national crisis. Providing quality healthcare services when and where they are needed should be the responsibility and duty of all healthcare facilities regardless of if they are public or private. We have no need for hospitals that refuse patients in the pursuit of profit.

It is time for the government to uphold its promise to strengthen public healthcare. It is the Korean people who will suffer if this doesn't occur. The government must put forth a roadmap to increase the proportion of public acute care beds to 30% in the next 5 years. In areas where there is an oversupply, the government must take over private healthcare facilities and turn them into public hospitals. In areas where there is an undersupply, it must establish public hospitals that act as key regional health facilities. It must build new infectious disease hospitals and wards.

- Increase public hospitals!
- Expand public healthcare threw the establishment of public infectious disease hospitals and a public healthcare university!
- Establish a plan to increase the public healthcare workforce!

28 February 2020
KPTU Healthcare Workers Solidarity Division