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South Korean Doctors Go on Strike

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South Korean Doctors Protest Government Plan to Address Shortage

More than 1,500 medical interns and residents in South Korea walked off the job on Tuesday, disrupting an essential service to protest the government’s plan to address a shortage of doctors by admitting more students to medical school. While South Korea takes pride in its affordable health care system, it has among the fewest physicians per capita in the developed world. Its rapidly aging population underscores the acute need for more doctors, according to the government, especially in rural parts of the country and in areas like emergency medicine.

The protesters, who are doctors in training and crucial for keeping hospitals running, claim that the shortage of doctors is not industrywide but confined to particular specialties, like emergency care. They say the government is ignoring the issues that have made working in those areas unappealing: harsh working conditions and low wages for interns and residents. Surveys have found that in a given week, doctors in training regularly work multiple shifts that last longer than 24 hours, and that many are on the job for more than 80 hours a week.

The protesting doctors also argue that by increasing the number of physicians, the government risks creating more competition that could lead to the overtreatment of patients. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration announced a plan to raise the nation’s medical school admissions quota by 65 percent, which was immediately criticized by doctors, who took to the streets with signs that read “end of health care.”

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Trainee doctors at five of the biggest hospitals in Seoul, where most of the country’s people live, submitted resignations on Monday and left their posts at 6 a.m. on Tuesday. Medical centers were already reporting disruptions in operations, including major hospitals which had cut back on services and canceled half of all planned surgical procedures.

The government has urged the doctors to stay in their posts, warning of legal repercussions for those who fail to comply. On Monday, the Health Ministry suspended the licenses of two members of the Korean Medical Association who were among the most vocal critics of the government’s plan. Laws permit the government to force some doctors back to work if there is a fear of disruption of care. Officials have said that they will rely on telemedicine operators and even military doctors until the matter is resolved.

There is broad public support in South Korea for increasing the medical school quota, which has essentially been unchanged since 2006. The country has about 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people, compared with an average of 3.7 in the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. President Yoon’s plan would raise medical school admissions to about 5,000 per year from 3,000. If the admissions quota is not increased, officials predict that by 2035 the nation will have about 10,000 fewer doctors than it needs.

This is not the first time in recent years that the government has pushed for more doctors. In 2020, President Moon Jae-in’s administration proposed increasing medical school admissions by 4,000 over 10 years. The plan was put on hold after a backlash from the medical community and a monthlong strike by physicians. The continued struggle between the government and doctors suggests that finding a solution to the shortage of doctors in South Korea will be no easy task.

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Chats and reflections on the present moment.

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Lydia Polgreen

Credit…Will Heath/NBC, via Getty Images

It is a rare thing in our rapidly secularizing country to be confronted with piety and devotion in popular culture. So it was a surprise, and a balm, to watch a man who prays daily and talks openly about his devout faith storm a bastion of earthly godlessness: “Saturday Night Live.”

I am referring, of course, to the comedian Ramy Youssef, who hosted the show on what he described in his opening monologue as “an incredibly spiritual weekend,” noting Ramadan, Easter and the arrival of a new Beyoncé album.

“I’m doing the Ramadan one,” he quipped, to peals of laughter, unspooling a very funny bit about how loving Muslims are. Youssef has mined his experience as a believer among the profane in gentle standup specials and a namesake sitcom. His entire monologue glowed with a welcoming warmth — Muslims, he seemed to say: We’re just like you.

In a country that is supposedly obsessed with diversity and inclusion, it is remarkable how rare it is to hear from a practicing Muslim in America.

Surveys by the Institute for Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan research organization focused on Muslim Americans, have consistently found that Muslims are the most likely group to report religious discrimination in the United States. According to a Pew survey conducted in 2021, 78 percent of Americans said that there was either a lot or some discrimination against Muslims in our society. Muslims are no more likely to commit crimes than members of any other group, but crimes in which Muslims are suspects get outsized media coverage, research has shown.

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It is no surprise, then, that Islamophobia is perhaps the most tolerated form of religious prejudice. Right now, Senate Republicans appear to have persuaded several Senate Democrats to vote against a Muslim judicial nominee after smearing him, with no evidence at all, as an antisemite.

Many of the skits that toyed with religion on “S.N.L.” on Saturday were funny — Ozempic for Ramadan! Genius. But part of me winced through them as well, because I saw in Youssef something that other members of minority groups have had to do to “earn” their place in the safety of the mainstream: the performance of normalcy, of being nonthreatening and sweet, the requirement to prove that your community belongs in America just like everyone else’s.

I loved Youssef’s monologue, in which he bravely pleaded, “Please, free the people of Palestine. And please, free the hostages. All of the hostages.”

“I am out of ideas,” Youssef declared toward the end of his monologue. “All I have is prayers.”

To which this nonbeliever can only say: Same, Ramy. Same.

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