I am glad to see you all. The Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency will present via videoconference presidential briefings on their undertakings for this new year. Their officials are working under the most difficult conditions on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19.
Before their briefings, I would like to join the people in wholeheartedly commending the staff of these government agencies on their hard work and achievements. I am also deeply grateful to specialists and medical professionals for dedicating themselves while working with epidemic control authorities as one team. Ruling Democratic Party Chairperson Lee Nak-yon, Floor Leader Kim Tae-nyeon and Policy Committee Chairperson Hong Ihk-pyo as well as National Assembly Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Kim Min-seok and experts on welfare and anti-epidemic efforts are with us today. Thank you for joining us.
Our response to COVID-19 is now entering a new phase. If the past year was a “time for defense” to fend off the virus through social distancing, from this moment on, it will be the “time for counterattack” through vaccines and treatments.
Starting next month, treatments developed by Korean businesses will be employed on the medical frontlines alongside the vaccine rollout. Herd immunity is expected to arise by November at the latest. Our vaccination system – the highest rated by the World Health Organization – will help inoculate our people in a safe and expeditious manner. I ask everyone to pay special heed to the transportation, storage and distribution of vaccines and make thorough preparations in advance so that people can be vaccinated on designated dates without having to stand in long lines.
Importantly, I urge you to strictly adhere to the principles of transparency, openness and democracy for vaccinations as well to build trust among the people. The entire process, ranging from authorization to post-inoculation monitoring, should be disclosed to the public transparently. We should refer to the experiences of other countries to minimize potential adverse reactions as much as possible. To minimize risks and maximize benefits, vaccination priorities should be established reasonably and fairly based on scientific evidence.
In addition, it has to be stressed that even after vaccinations have begun, epidemic prevention and control measures must also be firmly maintained and observed. However, depending on circumstances, we will have to prepare a social distancing strategy that minimizes the difficulties people are going through.
I urge you to work to further elevate the international status of Korea’s response to COVID-19. To this end, it is necessary to expand our country’s role as a vaccine production base together with the development of homegrown vaccines. We have to actively support the export of Korea-made treatments and low dead space syringes that minimize the amount of vaccine left unused – thus increasing the efficacy of the inoculation. At this juncture, we must also devise fundamental measures against new infectious diseases, for instance, by dramatically strengthening public health services.
It is also paramount and urgent to safeguard the people’s lives from the economic and social damage caused by COVID-19. The role of the social safety net – ranging from short-term to fundamental measures – that protects the people from unforeseen shocks is more pressing than ever. The Government has been steadily strengthening it since before the outbreak of COVID-19. While the number of employment insurance subscribers has increased by more than 1 million, the number of those eligible for basic living security benefits has risen from 1.58 million to 2.12 million. The people’s burden from medical expenses has been significantly reduced by expanding national health insurance coverage. A system making the Government responsible for dementia patients was initiated, and we have strengthened childcare support by expanding national and public daycare centers and introducing child allowances.
In addition, along with emergency relief payments, the Government has increased emergency welfare support for households struggling to make ends meet due to COVID-19, significantly improving income distribution through fiscal spending.
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, however, the people’s hardships are deepening further. The economic recovery is swift, but employment recovery remains slow. Microbusiness owners and the self-employed are facing increasing difficulties. Within the affordable scope of state finances, I urge the Government and the ruling party, along with the Ministry of SMEs and Startups and other related ministries and agencies, to deliberate ways to institutionalize a system that will compensate microbusiness owners and the self-employed for losses resulting from government epidemic prevention and control measures that suspend or restrict their businesses.
As seen in the tragic case of the mother and son in Seoul’s Bangbae-dong last year, some neighbors are unable to utilize the existing system. The social safety net has to be knitted more tightly, for instance, by completely abolishing the family support obligation rules for receiving a living allowance, expanding the number of seniors and people with disabilities eligible for increased pensions and introducing injury and sickness benefits.
We must further expedite the strengthening of the safety net in the areas of caregiving and healthcare and medical services. In particular, child abuse has to be prevented through early detection, and abused children must be thoroughly protected. In the process, I ask you to pay more attention to caregiving as well as guaranteeing children’s basic rights.
Welfare is not Government largesse but a social agreement to protect each other’s lives when in need. This is a basic right that everyone must be able to benefit from. We have to ensure a clear transition to a welfare system that reaches out to everyone without anyone being marginalized.
We must respond to a quickly changing social structure and new welfare demands. With the transition to a contact-free society accelerating, it has become imperative that we improve and supplement the welfare system in line with new working arrangements. Mental health welfare such as assisting those with COVID-19-caused depression should be strengthened as well. Demographic and household structural changes also continue as seen in the increase in the number of one-person households amid the low-birth rate and aging population. I ask the Ministry of Health and Welfare to play a central role in gathering expert insights into ways to improve the welfare system in line with changing social trends.
Last year, a second vice ministerial post was added at the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency was upgraded to an independent institution of the central government. I believe that empowerment by the National Assembly will help the KDCA live up to expectations. Today, I mainly talked about COVID-19, but other briefings, including the one about the Digital New Deal in the field of health and welfare, are also very important. I urge you to produce, without fail, tangible results that will positively impact people.
Let us pull together for an inclusive recovery and leap forward. Thank you.