A resurgence of infections in the Seoul region, where half of South Korea’s 51 million people live, is threatening the country’s success story in the battle against coronavirus.
Just weeks ago, South Korea was celebrating its hard-won gains against Covid-19, easing social distancing, reopening schools and promoting a tech-driven anti-virus campaign that President Moon Jae-in has called “K-quarantine”.
But the new cases have prompted health authorities to warn that action must be taken now to stop a second wave.
South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 45 new cases on Thursday, a daily rise that has been fairly consistent since late May. Most have been in the Seoul metropolitan area, where health authorities have struggled to trace transmissions.
“Considering the quick transmission of Covid-19, there’s limits to what we can do with contact tracing alone to slow the spread,” said Yoon Taeho, a senior Health Ministry official during a virus briefing, where he repeated a plea for residents in the capital area to stay at home.
Despite the concerns over the spike in infections, government officials have so far resisted calls to reimpose stronger social distancing guidelines after they were relaxed in April, citing concerns over hurting a fragile economy.
Their stance seems in contrast with the urgency conveyed by health experts, including KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong, who has warned that the country could be sleepwalking into another huge Covid-19 crisis, but this time in its most populous region.
She has said health workers are struggling more and more to track transmissions that are spreading quickly and unpredictably as people increase their activities.
Her concerns were echoed by Kwon Jun-wook, director of the National Institute of Health, who in a separate briefing acknowledged that health authorities were only managing to “chase transmissions after belatedly discovering them”.
While South Korea saw a much larger surge of infections in February and March, when hundreds of new cases were reported every day, those had been easier to track. The majority then were concentrated in a single church congregation in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city with 2.5 million people.
The recent clusters have popped up just about everywhere around the capital.
At least 146 cases have been linked to workers at a large warehouse operated by local e-commerce giant Coupang, which has been accused of failing to implement preventive measures.
Around 200 cases were linked to nightclubs and other entertainment venues, while more than 90 infections have been traced to church gatherings near Seoul.
At least 116 cases have been linked to door-to-door sellers hired by Richway, a health product provider. These cases are particularly worrisome because most of the sellers are in their sixties and seventies.
South Korea’s total cases now number 11,947, including 276 deaths. Most people have recovered, but the number of active cases rose back above 1,000 this week after dropping below the mark in mid-May.
The spike in infections in the capital area has inspired second-guessing on whether officials were too quick to ease social-distancing measures.
The government in mid-April decided to lift administrative orders that advised entertainment and sports venues to close, allow professional sports to return to action without spectators and green-light a phased reopening of schools.
But Seoul and nearby cities restored some of the controls in recent weeks by shutting thousands of nightclubs, hostess bars and karaoke rooms. Resisting criticism from privacy advocates, officials have also started requiring entertainment venues, gyms and concert halls to register their customers with smartphone QR codes so they could be easily located when needed.