Thousands of Doctors in South Korea Strike As COVID Cases Spike

Authorities warned that doctors on strike may lose their medical licenses and face hefty fines.
August 26, 2020, 1:12pm
south korea coronavirus
Health officials wearing protective gear guide a visitor at a COVID-19 coronavirus testing station in Seoul on August 26, 2020. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Thousands of South Korean doctors and trainees have been told to call off a nationwide strike as President Moon Jae-in ordered his government on Wednesday, August 26, to “strongly” respond to the issue.

Vowing to continue discussions with doctors, Moon called for "principled law enforcement" to ensure that the medical services will not be disrupted. 

The Korean Medical Association, representing about 130,000 doctors across the country, launched earlier today a three-day strike in opposition to some government proposals, including plans to increase the number of medical students—a proposal the trainees see as a way to cheapen the medical labor workforce.  

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"We sincerely do want to return," KMA said in a statement, according to Reuters. "We ask you, citizens, to listen to our voice so that we can meet our patients as soon as possible."

Striking trainees, residents and doctors that have ignored the return-to-work order from the government have been warned that their licenses could be revoked and that they could be slapped with a fine of up to 30 million won (US$25,000).

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The walkouts have disrupted medical services in major hospitals in South Korea’s capital area, according to Yonhap news agency. Some hospitals reportedly had to shorten their hours of operation.

"We urge residents and fellows to immediately return and attend to patients. We will deal sternly with law and principle if the failure to return to work creates a vacuum in medical service and hurts patients," Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said, according to KBS.

The strikes come as the South Korean government reports a fresh spike in coronavirus cases. Authorities recorded 320 new infections over the last 24 hours. 

The country has recorded over 18,000 coronavirus cases and 312 deaths as of Wednesday.

"In the grave COVID-19 situation, we do not have the time nor strength to deal with unnecessary conflict. I would like to urge medical workers to cooperate to stabilize the coronavirus situation. It will not be too late to discuss ways to improve medical policies after that,” Park said. 

In an online event, Kim Dong-seok, KMA president, said increasing the supply of doctors will only lower the quality of medical service.

"I am an obstetrician. The lack of obstetrics and gynecology clinics in rural areas does not mean that there are not enough doctors but that there are no women delivering babies,” he said. If you increase the number of doctors when there are no patients, where would all those doctors go in ten years?"