South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum apologized Tuesday for failing to maintain the health of hundreds of his sailors who contracted the coronavirus on a Navy ship taking part in an anti-piracy mission off the coast of East Africa.
The outbreak on the destroyer Munmu The Great is the largest cluster the South Korean military has ever faced. A total of 247 of the 301 crew members have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days and two military planes had to be sent to fly them all home.
None of the destroyer’s crew had been vaccinated since they left South Korea in early February, before the start of the country’s vaccination campaign.
Kim said in a televised address that the government was “deeply sorry for not carefully taking care of the health of the soldiers who serve the country”.
In a separate speech, Defense Minister Suh Wook said he felt a huge responsibility for the outbreak and offered his sincere apologies to the sailors, their families and the public.
Suh said all the sailors would be transferred to a hospital or quarantine facility once they returned to South Korea on Tuesday evening. He said the government would take steps to prevent a similar outbreak in South Korean troops sent abroad.
The cause of the infection on the 4,400-ton class destroyer has not been announced. But military authorities had previously suspected the outbreak might have started when the destroyer docked at a port in the region to load goods in late June.
South Korea has been involved in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009.
Two military planes deployed to bring the sailors home were carrying other naval personnel who will sail Munmu The Great to South Korea for a journey that is expected to take a month. Another South Korean destroyer is en route to the area to replace Munmu The Great, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The outbreak on the destroyer comes as South Korea is battling its worst wave of the pandemic at home.
On Tuesday, South Korea reported 1,278 cases of the new virus. It was the 14th day in a row South Korea reported more than 1,000 new cases.
Since the pandemic began, South Korea has reported 180,481 infections and 2,059 deaths. [ab/uh]