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South Korea battles to contain COVID amid policy uncertainty

Frank Smith Seoul
December 23, 2020

The country had largely contained the pandemic by summer, but COVID-19 cases have recently seen an alarming rise. Korean media and health experts blame authorities for the situation.

A quarantine worker sprays disinfectant at a high school
South Korea dealt well with the initial COVID wave, but is now struggling tooImage: Reuters/Yonhap News Agency

South Korea is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases, with more than 1,000 people per day having tested positive several times in the past two weeks. The government initially raised its social distancing regulations to what it calls level 2.5 (out of 3) in the capital region, and then implemented auxiliary measures on Wednesday.

The new regulations limit gatherings to four people – anywhere in the country, indoors or outdoors – with certain exceptions. However, these measures have led to increasing confusion, while hospital beds for serious virus patients have become scarce, and the government comes under pressure over failure to procure vaccine supplies in a timely manner.

South Koreans have largely followed the coronavirus rules, but the government warns of a more restrictive lockdown.

New COVID restrictions

South Korea efficiently contained the pandemic early in the outbreak. Its testing, contact tracing and quarantining methods were praised around the world as a cluster outbreak at a church in February was quickly brought under control by summer.

The situation changed in the fall, with November cases rising to hundreds per day until December 12, when 1,030 new cases of the virus were announced by the Korea Center for Disease Control. After some delay, the government tightened social distancing regulations in the capital region, home to more than half of the country's residents. Many facilities were closed, although people could still eat in restaurants with seating restricted, and cafes could serve take out coffee.

As cases continue to hover around 1,000 per day, officials have come under pressure to raise the social distancing level to 3.0 – the highest level. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun warned that the government was considering such a move as a "last resort." On Monday, auxiliary measures were announced for the capital region, in coordination with Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, and the rules came into effect on Wednesday.

Gatherings of more than four people have been largely banned. Exceptions are made for people living together, those attending funerals or weddings, although capacities are restricted and masks must be worn. And still at most businesses, including cafés and restaurants, customers are required to either sign in, or log in – through a QR code using their phone.

Will government move to third-tier level?

Many people were caught off guard with the new restrictions. "I was surprised," said Yoo Byung-wook, the director of the International Health Care Center at Soon Chun Hyang University in Seoul. "Level 3 does not allow gatherings of more than 10 people. Now more than five are not allowed, which means it's stronger than level 3 of social distancing," Yoo told DW.

At level 3, an estimated 2 million stores and facilities across the country would be shut down, which could have widespread economic repercussions. The government is trying to avoid it. The South Korean press, however, is urging the government to take stronger measures. Yonhap News says President Moon Jae-in's administration "should take bolder action before it is too late."

Health officials  have also been critical of the government. The targeted measures implemented this week have created confusion, with many suggesting the authorities failed to act because of their own arrogance due to earlier successes in bringing cluster outbreaks under control.

"Governments are not only considering science and medicine, but also the economy," said Yoo. "But as a doctor, I support moving to the third-tier level as soon as possible, as briefly as possible, to cut the third wave on the Korean Peninsula."

More difficult to contain

But containing the virus now is certainly more challenging than before, as the current situation is different in terms of the range of the contagion in the country. Rather than emanating from a single or limited number of sources, the clusters in South Korea are now spread across the country in various community settings and are more difficult to trace.

The government has launched more than 50 random testing centers and increased the number of COVID-19 tests. But more than 25% of the new cases cannot be traced, indicating the virus is out of control, say health experts. Still, Prime Minister Chung pointed to the boost in testing as good news, as it did not correlate to an increase in cases this week.

With the rise in cases in December, there are also concerns about the ability of South Korea's public health system to treat coronavirus patients. At one point, Seoul had no intensive care unit (ICU) beds for COVID-19 patients, and several people have been reported to have died awaiting hospital space.

The government stepped in and called for private hospitals to allocate beds to coronavirus patients. Yoo says it means fewer ICU beds for other critical patients, which are increasing in number this time of year, as those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes or cancer fall ill. But this week, some hospitals stepped in to convert wards and create more ICU beds, said Yoo. The military has also accepted more patients.

Late inoculations

With immunizations beginning in other countries, the government has come under attack for being late in securing vaccines. Prime Minister Chung announced Monday that South Korea would begin 10 million inoculations using the AstraZeneca vaccine in February or March 2021. Officials also say they are negotiating with BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, and Janssen to reserve supplies to adequately immunize South Korea's 51 million residents.

Some argue the delay will enable health officials here to better evaluate the vaccines, using the experiences of the UK and the US.

The government has also been on the offensive regarding fearmongering fake news, with PM Chung asking media regulators to punish those who spread false reports regarding the timing of a potential level 3.0 lockdown and hoarding of daily necessities, neither of which has happened, yet.

"There is a strong message from the government that if the current measures are not followed, it is ready to move to level 3.0," said Yoo.

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