South Korea Holds Off Imposing Maximum Social Distancing Measures As Cases Surge

A disinfection worker wearing protective clothing sprays anti-septic solution in an Sejong Culture Centre on July 21, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)
A disinfection worker wearing protective clothing sprays anti-septic solution in an Sejong Culture Centre on July 21, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

South Korea, one of the world’s leading examples for novel coronavirus containment, is struggling with a recent surge of thousands of infections of the virus. Some in the country are calling for a version of a tried-and-true solution practiced all around the world: restrictive social distancing measures.

FYI, South Korea Never Locked Down

A medical worker prepares for covid-19 testing at a temporary test facility on August 26, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

Unlike the U.S. and many other countries, which were essentially forced to lock down their countries as virus spread like wildfire, South Korea never had to issue lockdowns to control the spread of the coronavirus. Per the Wall Street Journal, it instead relied on lots of testing, intense contact tracing and cooperation from its citizens. In other words, instead of being forced to stay indoors and wear masks like people in other countries, South Koreans did that of their own accord.

Overall, South Korea’s Bars, Restaurants and Stores Remained Open

People take pictures and videos as they stay overnight on the rooftop of the Lotte World Tower as a way to safely social distance while camping in an urban setting on August 07, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

This meant that while people in other countries stayed inside and were advised not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, South Korea’s 51 million people were allowed to go out to bars, restaurants and stores. The plan has ultimately spared the country’s economy from the effects felt by other wealthy countries during the pandemic, many of which saw their economies plummet when they imposed lockdowns.

South Korea’s Control Could Be Fading

A disinfection worker sprays antiseptic solution at the subway station amid the coronavirus pandemic on August 26, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

Unfortunately, it seems that South Korea’s initial control of the disease may be fading. The country has been reporting hundreds of new infections per day every day for more than two weeks. On Saturday, the AP reported that the country had recorded 323 new cases, bringing the national caseload since the start of the health crisis in the country to 19,400. There have been 321 total deaths.

But It’s Still Nowhere Near As Bad As the U.S.

Medical staff wearing protective gear prepare for covid-19 testing at a temporary test facility on August 19, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

For comparison’s sake, while these numbers have sent South Korea into full-blown alert, the U.S. on Saturday reported more than 5.9 million cases and over 182,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre.

Despite this grim fact, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly decided this week to tell the public that people who have likely been exposed to the coronavirus but don’t have symptoms don’t necessarily need to get tested if they’re not experiencing symptoms. It then apparently changed its mind and said that “testing may be considered for all close contacts of confirmed or probable covid-19 patients.”

One of the Areas of Concern Is a Church in Northern Seoul

A disinfection worker wearing protective clothing sprays antiseptic solution in a Yoido Full Gospel Church amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus on August 21, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

Of the newly reported cases in South Korea, the Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that 249 had come from the Seoul metropolitan area, which is densely populated. Half of the country’s 51 million people live there.

Another area of concern has been the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, where more than 1,000 infections have been linked to a local church, per the AP. The spread apparently worsened after an anti-government protest that attracted thousands in downtown Seoul earlier this month. The church’s pastor, Jun Kwang-hun, and other congregation members participated in the protest. Jun has since tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Government Is Tightening Restrictions in the Seoul Metropolitan Area

Pedestrians wear masks amid the coronavirus pandemic on August 26, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

In light of the recent cases in the Seoul metropolitan area, the government is tightening restrictions. Beginning on Sunday, restaurants in the area will only be allowed to provide delivery and takeout after 9 p.m. Franchised coffee shops like Starbucks will only be allowed to sell takeout drinks and food. Gyms and after school academies, meanwhile, will close. The new restrictions will last eight days.

Nationwide, Restrictions Are at Level Two

A worker disinfects an alley to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on August 29, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

Besides the new restrictions in the Seoul metropolitan level, current nationwide social distancing measures are set at Level Two. These measures limit gatherings indoors and outdoors to 50 people and 100 people, respectively, according to the Wall Street Journal. They also require clubs, internet cafes and karaoke rooms to shut down. In-person church services are not prohibited under Level Two measures. There are three levels in South Korea’s social distancing system, the highest of which is level three.

Some Are Calling for the Most Restrictive Social Distancing Measures

The audience walks past a thermal camera in light of the coronavirus at a Sejong Culture Centre ahead of musical 'Mozart' on July 21, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

Nonetheless, there are some that call for even more restrictions to stop the spread of the virus and say the government should implement Level Three social distancing measures. These measures are the closest thing South Korea has to the lockdown people are familiar with in the U.S., although they are not as restrictive. Level Three measures would prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people, shut down schools and stop professional sports. Under these measures, private companies would be advised to have all but essential employees work from home.

It is important to note that even under Level Three measures, many guidelines are voluntary, according to the Journal.

At the Moment, the Government Is Holding Off Level Three Restrictions

Instructions and QR code for SafeEntry contact tracing is displayed amid coronavirus at a Sejong Culture Centre for ahead of musical 'Mozart' on July 21, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images)

A new survey conducted by Seoul-based research firm Realmeter, and cited by the Journal, found that 56% of South Koreans view enacting the tightest restrictions as a “necessary measure” to stop the virus. Meanwhile, 40% of those surveyed urged caution because of the economic impact. Opposition lawmakers have also criticised the government and say that it is moving too slowly to contain the virus.

South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, is resisting calls to implement Level Three restrictions. Officials in the Moon administration say the reason for restraint is the potential damage to the country’s economy.

“Our daily lives will come to a stop, employment will collapse and we will have to endure immense economic damage,” Moon said in a meeting this past week when discussing the consequences of implementing the highest level of social distancing restrictions.