SEOUL: The website of South Koreas public health authority currently features an image of a smartly dressed woman and man wearing masks while posing in front of a mishmash of signboards written in Chinese characters.
In depicting two people who are remaining calm while exercising caution as a new coronavirus afflicts the country and businesses and families brace for disruption, the government appears to be telling its people: Do not panic but do wear a mask.
Next to the photo is a message imploring all South Koreans to take part in efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus, a mysterious new illness in the country.
While the government is calling on the country as a whole to work to keep South Korea safe, this latest health scare underscores the reality that in this country, it is still the government that is responsible for management during challenging times.
South Korea this week reported two cases of the new coronavirus that appears to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has also been reported in Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Japan.
The number of cases in China grew to more than 800 this week, raising fears of a global pandemic, with even the US reporting a case.
In an unfortunate bit of timing, while South Koreans are fretting over the disease this week, the country announced its weakest economic growth since the global financial crisis of a decade ago.
Of late, South Koreas export-dependent economy has dealt with tremors from the trade conflict between the United States and China, as well as the countrys own spat with Japan.
In announcing the weak growth figures, a central bank official highlighted how the new coronavirus could pose a risk to consumption as happened in 2015 when there was an outbreak of the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the country.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
South Koreas economy ought to be less vulnerable than ever to a public health crisis, as there are now ways for businesses to maintain operations with workers not being in the same physical space.
This is a country with some of the most widely available Wi-Fi connection anywhere in the world, meaning that it wouldnt be difficult for workers to be just as productive from home.
But despite having the technological infrastructure, South Korea has generally been slow to adapt to workplace evolutions like remote working.
The countrys traditions of collectivism still posit that all members of a team should, whenever possible, be together in the office for the whole day. Someone who suggests that they would prefer to spend the day at home by themselves than in the office with the team might be seen as selfish or anti-social.
Beyond trust or perception issues, there is a deeper problem of a risk-averse culture in South Korea that deters employers from taking such bold moves.
A RISK-AVERSE CULTURE
If South Korea seems risk averse, part of this may be explained by the countrys national psyche.
Having fought a destructive civil war in the early 1950s, many Koreans were left feeling that the country got a late start and had to work harder than others to develop.
Having built a successful economy, Korean policymakers sometimes fear potential blowback from risky moves.
That thinking is also extended to organisational cultures, where newer additions such as flexible work arrangements and remote working are deemed contrarian to and may dilute the ethos of a strong work ethic built into the national psyche.
I remember years ago one successful Korean businessman telling me over dinner, “You in the West had a head start on us. We lost our country once. We cannot lose it again.”
A DEEPER PROBLEM
That risk averse mind-set also extends to the government, which has been facing criticism for stifling innovation.
A telling example is the case of Tada, a ride-sharing service. The countrys large and vocal taxi lobby successfully pushed the government to enact legislation that would ban Tada from operating, arguing that the company could push traditional taxis out of business.
To many, the case of Tada sent the message that the Korean government is more interested in protecting vested interests than in promoting innovation.
This week, in a case local media dubbed “revenge of the nerds,” a group of tech entrepreneurs launched a political movement with the hope of pushing through regulatory reform that would create conditions for innovation.
The founders describe being frustrated at the government who promise to ease red tape, then fail to follow through.
According to one founder, South Korea has missed out on chances in cloud, big data, drones, autonomous driving, blockchain and sharing-economy technology because of the regulations.
GOVERNMENT SIGNAL IS KEY
That perception of an indecisive government was also reienforced during the last epidemic outbreak in South Korea – MERS in 2015. Many here are making comparisons with that episode to question if things will be managed better this time around.
The South Korean public was critical of the government in 2015 for bungling its response to the outbreak by failing to properly implement quarantine measures and not sharing information transparently with the public.
READ: Commentary: Wuhan virus sparks questions over local Chinese officials' disclosure of information
Still, even though 36 people died out of 186 reported cases, MERS never snowballed into the full-blown pandemic many feared, but Read More – Source