IIn April, South Korea was held up as an example of how the coronavirus outbreak could be contained. A combination of aggressive testing, contact detection, and isolation had helped the curve flatten out, despite its proximity to China – the center of the original outbreak – and without a single day of lockdown.
Lauded by the World Health Organization, the government launched a campaign of “coronavirus diplomacy” with countries grappling with much larger outbreaks and death tolls, and released a detailed guide to managing a pandemic, the South Korean way.
But eight months later, those early gains have given way to alarms that South Korea is in the throes of an unstoppable wave of infections caused by clusters not responding to the proven response.
Sunday, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency [KDCA] reported a daily record of 1,030 new Covid-19 infections. The number of cases dropped to below 800 the next day, partly due to fewer tests being performed over the weekend, but recovered to 880 on Tuesday. Health authorities warned that at the current rate, the number of cases could reach 1,200 per day.
In the greater Seoul region – home to about half of the country’s 52 million residents – residents are bracing for tougher measures as authorities struggle to identify transmission routes fueling a viral resurgence in and around the capital.
Park Young-joo, a 78-year-old woman from Gyeonggi Province, near Seoul, said she was concerned.
“I try to stay indoors as much as possible, but I live with my son’s family, so I’m always worried that I could catch something from them,” she said. “Everyone in my family is tense and I think it’s because I’m old and at higher risk.”
Europeans and Americans, among others, might wonder why South Korea seems so concerned: It has reported a total of 44,363 cases and only 600 deaths, according to the KDCA. That compares to more than 56,000 deaths in England, which has a comparable population.
Still, the government has warned that failure to contain the resurgence could force it to lift restrictions to level 3, the highest level, bringing Asia’s fifth-largest economy into operation for the first time since the start of the pandemic. a soft block.
Schools in the region were forced to close on Tuesday, and testing has ramped up from about 16,000 people a day in September to 22,000. Celebrations at the end of the year – a potentially huge source of transmission – are prohibited.
Level 3 measures would keep all but essential workers at home, prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people and limit capacity on trains to 50%.
After nearly a year of widespread masks, social aloofness and periods of individual isolation caused by the country’s technology to track down contacts, South Koreans are starting to lower their guard, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Tuesday.
“While most people tolerate the inconvenience and follow the rules, some are feeding the ferocious spread of the virus with their carelessness and irresponsibility,” Chung said during a televised government meeting, adding that level 3 measures were a last resort because of the “irrevocable pain” they would bring to the economy.
Health authorities have identified well-known offenders with a social distance, such as churches and businesses that depend on the entertainment economy. Additionally, there were large gatherings of family and friends behind more than a fifth of the recently discovered clusters.
Some experts believe South Korea is paying the price for the government’s “premature” decision to ease restrictions in the fall.
“The government changed its policy in October, meaning it must now step up measures as the outbreak becomes more widespread,” Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease expert at Gachon University in Incheon, told The Guardian.
“This has allowed the virus to spread through local communities and increase the likelihood that it will spread over an even wider area,” he said, warning that hospital beds in the Seoul region are rapidly running out.
Praised just months ago for his initial response to the pandemic, South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has seen his approval ratings drop to rock bottom.
Moon, who said the country has “its back to the wall,” apologized for not being able to stop the recent surge in infections quickly. “I’m sorry that people feel anxious and worried,” he tweeted over the weekend.
Lee Seung-du, a 29-year-old resident of Seoul, said he wore the most effective masks he could afford and avoided going out unless absolutely necessary.
“Every morning I wake up and see that the number of infections has gone up again,” he said. Just a few weeks ago, the government bragged about how its measures were praised worldwide. But I think it’s all a joke … I can’t believe playing with people’s lives is for the sake of a little good PR. “