Normal life is returning to South Korea, but is it too soon?

As COVID-19 cases in South Korea wane, the world watches to see whether relaxed social distancing rules will bring progress or vulnerability to a second wave of the virus. A mini outbreak linked to nightclubs in Seoul has raised concerns about lifting lockdowns.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
People walk along the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul, South Korea on May 22, 2020. The country's coronavirus caseload dropped to single digits in recent weeks, prompting the government to relax social distancing measures.

The baseball league is on. Students have begun returning to school. And people are increasingly dining out and enjoying nighttime strolls in public parks.

As South Korea significantly relaxes its rigid social distancing rules as a result of waning coronavirus cases, the world is paying close attention to whether it can return to something that resembles normal – or face a virus resurgence. Already, a mini-outbreak linked to nightclubs in Seoul has tested South Korea’s widely praised method for dealing with the disease – essentially a combination of rapid tracing, testing, and treatment, along with stringent social distancing practices.

“Other countries must be wondering whether our nation will continue to make good progress,” said Jin Yong Kim, a doctor at Incheon Medical Center near Seoul who confirmed South Korea’s first patient on Jan. 20 and has since treated more than 100 others. “But I can’t predict with authority what will happen here from now on.”

South Korea once had the world’s largest number of coronavirus cases outside mainland China, but its daily caseload has since dropped to around 10-30 and occasionally has hit single digits in recent weeks. South Korea on Wednesday still reported 40 new cases, its biggest daily jump in about 50 days.

The recent uptick in fresh infections linked to nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon entertainment district has raised fears of another big outbreak. Since the first patient was associated with the nightclubs on May 6 – the same day social distancing policy was officially eased – South Korea has confirmed more than 250 related cases.

It’s unclear how things will play out, but so far the outbreak hasn’t grown, unlike what happened in late February and early March when hundreds of new patients were reported each day, many of them tied to a controversial church gathering in the country’s southeast.

The tried and tested methods of aggressive tracing, testing, and treatment and the widespread public use of masks again played a major role in preventing the outbreak in Itaewon from exploding, said Hyukmin Lee, a professor at Yonsei University of College of Medicine in Seoul.

South Korean officials previously said their nation was approaching its economic and social limits. But Mr. Lee said the government now has to think about whether it can tolerate small outbreaks and let the economy operate smoothly, or if it should restore strict social distancing rules.

Meanwhile, daily life – of a sort – has resumed.

Long-delayed baseball and soccer seasons began without fans in the stands. Public parks, museums, and outdoor leisure facilities have reopened. High school seniors returned to class last week, and younger students will do the same in phases by June 8.

These days, during lunch time, restaurants in downtown Seoul are crowded with office workers, and many have stopped working from home. During evening rush hours, subways are packed with commuters wearing masks. At night, in a park in western Seoul, it’s easy to find young couples strolling without masks.

South Korea’s quarantine campaign is often compared with that of the United States, U.K., and Italy, some of the hardest-hit countries. They all noticed their first cases in late January.

South Korea launched widespread testing fairly early, and in early February it had open public testing, which was available to asymptomatic people, and pursued contact tracing for all confirmed patients. Italy’s testing increased much more slowly. In the case of the U.K., despite its early head start on testing, there were signs that it wasn’t able to keep up with the outbreak. Testing in the U.S. began in earnest in mid-March, according to a recent analysis in Our World in Data, a nonprofit online scientific publication based at the University of Oxford.

Of the 5.6 million people infected worldwide, the U.S. tops the list with about 1.6 million while both the U.K. and Italy have more than 230,000 cases respectively. South Korea has recorded a total of 11,265 cases with 269 deaths.

Jaehun Jung, a professor at Gachon University College of Medicine, said lifting restrictions in the U.S., U.K., and Italy will likely cause a second wave of COVID-19 that he said could be “much bigger and more severe.”

In South Korea, officials said the reopening of schools will likely be a major yardstick for whether authorities can maintain the relaxed restrictions. The French government said last week that about 70 virus cases had been linked to schools, one week after a third of French schoolchildren went back to school in an easing of the coronavirus lockdown.

There is a sense that South Korea’s hard-won gains could be reversed without vigilance.

“South Korea will face a second virus wave, too. Whether there are outbreaks that are 10 times bigger than what happened in Itaewon or smaller ones, we’ll continue to see them,” said Mr. Kim, the doctor at Incheon Medical Center. “If we consider our high population density ... we are rather more vulnerable to the virus than [even the U.S.].”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

 

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