South Korean health officials have warned residents to take current restrictions seriously, as the country faces the possibility of entering into its first potential lockdown since the beginning of the pandemic amid an alarming rise in new infections.
South Korea has long been considered a model country for its effective response to multiple waves of coronavirus, earning praise from the World Health Organization earlier this year after authorities successfully halted the spread of the initial outbreak.
Despite being among the first countries to be hit by the virus, South Korea has managed to avoid the type of stringent lockdown measures seen elsewhere in the world, thanks largely to a combination of aggressive testing and sophisticated track and trace techniques.
But as the pandemic drags on into winter, the emergence of a so-called “third wave” has resulted in an apparently untraceable rise in new infections.
Speaking Wednesday, senior Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho urged people to participate fully with social distancing measures in the Seoul Metropolitan area, which accounts for around half of the country’s 51 million-strong population. Those restrictions are currently at level 2.5 on the country’s scale, with level 3 being a de facto lockdown.
Yoon said officials are currently consulting with experts, local governments, and the anti-virus work committee about whether to raise restrictions to level 3.
Such a move would likely constitute “a big social change,” warned Yoon and could result in harm to small businesses and the self-employed.
On Tuesday, South Korea reported 1,078 new cases, the highest daily count since the start of the pandemic, bringing the national total to 45,442. Some 226 patients are in critical condition, while there were an additional 12 deaths Tuesday, increasing total fatalities to 612.
On Wednesday, the acting Mayor of Seoul, Seo Jung-hyup, warned the capital was facing a critical shortage of hospital space, with 77 of the city’s 78 ICU beds now occupied by coronavirus patients.
While these numbers pale in comparison to those seen in much of Europe or the United States, the latest spike is demonstrative of the additional difficulties caused by freezing winter temperatures – which drive people indoors, where infection is easier – and growing fatigue over restrictions and precautions.
According to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, cases in South Korea have been steadily increasing since mid-November, and the country has been slowly enacting more restrictions and social distancing rules in response.
Last week, military and police were called in to help with contact tracing efforts, while testing centers extended their hours into the night and on weekends to encourage testing in the greater Seoul area. At a briefing announcing new efforts, a top South Korean health official warned the country was facing its “biggest crisis” so far.
Level 3 restrictions could see schools and churches forced to move operations online. Earlier this year, multiple outbreaks in South Korea were linked to religious groups, and some led protests against the government when authorities attempted to enforce social distancing measures.
According to public broadcaster KBS, at least one cluster in Seoul has been linked to a church.
“The church held gatherings four times a week for seven weeks in a confined space for a prolonged period of time, meaning the possibility of droplets spreading among participants was very high,” Park Yoo-mi, a local health official, told KBS. “We are further investigating the matter.”
Winter has long been expected to bring a spike in cases through much of the northern hemisphere, but particularly in countries where temperatures are lowest: greater ventilation, which can aid in preventing infections, is far more difficult when average daytime temperatures are below -5C (23F) as in Seoul this week.
Speaking Tuesday, Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said “the third wave is different from the previous two. It’s the most critical point since the Covid-19 pandemic began.”
In neighboring – and equally cold – Japan, restrictions have also been ramped up in response to a new wave of cases.
On Tuesday, an additional 2,410 new cases and 45 deaths were recorded across Japan, bringing the respective totals to 184,754 cases and 2,701 deaths. The number of patients in intensive care is at its highest level all year, health officials warned.
Japan has also largely avoided the type of strict lockdowns seen elsewhere, opting instead for intensive border controls, contact tracing and social distancing, an experiment that has been broadly successful. But the sheer amount of time citizens have been living under even minor restrictions – East Asia was the first region in the world to deal with the coronavirus, with precautions being enacted as early as January this year – runs the risk of fatigue.
“Please do not get used to the coronavirus,” Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa said at a briefing last month, as cases started to rise. “Please do not underestimate the coronavirus.”
Jake Kwon and Gawon Bae reported from Seoul, South Korea. James Griffiths reported from Hong Kong.