New COVID-19 outbreaks test South Korea’s strategy
By Choe Sang-Hun
South Korea was so proud of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic that it coined a term for it: K-Quarantine, named after the global musical phenomenon K-pop.
Its two-pronged strategy of fighting the virus while keeping the economy running appeared to work. The country all but halted a large outbreak without closing its borders, locking down towns or drawing an outcry over draconian restrictions on speech and movement. The country was held up as a model for the rest of the world.
But now, South Korea is struggling with a second wave of infections, and its strategy seems as precarious as ever. The new wave is spreading from the populous Seoul metropolitan area and through people deeply suspicious of President Moon Jae-in’s epidemiological efforts. To complicate matters more, some of the government’s strongest allies in the fight against COVID-19, young doctors, have turned against Moon. They have gone on strike, unhappy with his medical reform program.
The government is also trying to sustain a fragile balance between controlling the virus and safeguarding the economy, and between using government power to protect public health and not infringing on civil liberties.
“Our quarantine strategy, once considered a model to follow in the rest of the world, is suddenly faced with a crisis,” Moon said last week. “The whole nation is in a difficult situation. The people’s lives are crumbling.”
South Korea’s daily caseload of new infections, once fewer than 10, has been in the triple digits every day since Aug. 14, taking the country of 50 million people to more than 20,000 cases and 326 deaths, according to a New York Times database. The virus has spread quickly from churches and a large antigovernment protest rally. Moon’s government has threatened lawsuits and prosecution against churchgoers and protesters accused of impeding officials’ efforts to control the epidemic. But they’ve pushed back, calling him a dictator who is running the country under “quarantine martial law.”
Undeterred, Moon recently tightened restrictions, banning church gatherings and large outdoor rallies and shutting down nightclubs and bars. Epidemiologists have called for more drastic social distancing measures, like banning all gatherings of more than 10 people and closing hundreds of thousands of other places, like professional sports games, cafes and wedding halls.
But Moon has hesitated to go that far, fearing the damage to the already-shrinking economy.
“We are at crossroads,” Jung Eun-kyeong, the director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday. “This coming week will decide whether we can stabilize the second wave of infections.”
In late February, South Korea was reporting as many as 900 cases a day. But the country quickly flattened the curve of new infections, thanks to its aggressive contact-tracing and testing program. Also key to the success was a public that embraced curbs on their civil rights for the sake of fighting the pandemic.
People wore masks daily. Few complained when the government aggressively used surveillance-camera footage, smartphone location data and credit card purchase records to help trace coronavirus patients and establish transmission chains. South Koreans also gave Moon’s governing Democratic Party a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in April.
By May, South Korea was confident that it could become more active economically without allowing the contagion to come roaring back. It started a campaign called “A New Daily Life With COVID-19,” urging people to go out, socialize, spend and have fun to keep the economy rolling. If there was any backsliding, restrictions would snap back into place.
“We cannot delay returning to normal life forever,” Moon said then. “Quarantine is the beginning of economic recovery, but it doesn’t bring us the food.”
The government unleashed 14 trillion won, or $11.8 billion, in cash gifts to households to help shore up domestic consumption. In late May, it opened 256 beaches across the country for summer vacationers. In July, it allowed Bible studies and other small religious gatherings, previously banned as a hard-to-monitor avenue for virus spreading.
In August, just days before the spike in cases, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that South Korea’s economy would contract only 0.8% this year, compared with an average of 7.5% for other countries in the group.
Millions of South Koreans hit the road and shops in mid-August during a three-day weekend created by Moon’s government to give “a brief but valuable time of rest for people weary over the prolonged epidemic.”
But even before the holiday began Aug. 15, signs emerged that relaxing restrictions was leading to more infections.
Days earlier, a fast-growing outbreak erupted in Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, home to a faith-based, conservative political movement against Moon. Another outbreak started Aug. 15, when vocal critics of Moon’s policies, especially on North Korea, attended a large anti-government rally in downtown Seoul. Some Sarang Jeil Church members had mingled with the crowd, health officials said.
On Wednesday, the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, chief pastor of Sarang Jeil Church, held a news conference where he accused the government of scapegoating churches to silence its critics and cover up its own epidemiological failures.
As the new outbreaks threaten to tarnish one of his biggest achievements as president, Moon has sounded increasingly strident, suggesting he will use the blunt force of the law to punish those who impede the government’s epidemiological efforts. His government has proclaimed “zero tolerance” and “maximum penalties.”
“No freedom of religion, assembly or expression can be asserted at the cost of such damage,” he has said, accusing the politically active conservative church members of spreading the virus and endangering the economy.
“Prayers may give you peace of mind but don’t protect you from the virus,” he said.
The police have so far referred 959 people for prosecution for violating laws to control the virus, including hundreds charged with flouting a government order to wear masks or breaking quarantine to go out to eat, drink, smoke, take out the garbage or report to their workplaces. The police arrested at least four people, including two pastors, who were accused of misleading epidemiological investigations by lying about their whereabouts or the size of their church congregations.