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South Korea’s new coronavirus cases show the perils of reopening

Just one sick person led to a sudden increase of new infections in South Korea.

Commuters wear protective masks as they crowd on a subway escalator during rush hour on May 11, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The weekend before last, a 29-year-old South Korean man visited five nightclubs in Seoul, where he partied with around 7,200 other people. Five days later — on the same day South Korea relaxed social distancing measures — he tested positive for Covid-19, becoming the country’s first local infection in four days.

According to South Korean health officials, nearly 80 new Covid-19 cases have been linked to the man’s outing in the Itaewon neighborhood. And on Monday, officials announced 35 new confirmed infections — the highest total in about a month — of which 29 may have originated from those five nightclubs.

As a result, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon on Saturday ordered all bars and clubs indefinitely closed. “Carelessness can lead to an explosion in infections,” he said.

This means South Korea, one of the world’s top examples for how to combat the coronavirus, may soon become the poster child for the dangers of reopening a country.

“As soon as you let your foot off the brake, cases of this highly contagious coronavirus will take off, even in countries like South Korea,” Dr. Dena Grayson, a physician and pandemics expert, told me.

Why South Korea opened up

South Korea reported its first coronavirus case on January 20, just one day before the US.

Even with few confirmed infections in the country, South Korea’s government launched an aggressive testing, tracing, and isolation effort. It worked: As of May 11, the country of about 50 million people has had nearly 11,000 confirmed infections and over 250 deaths, compared with roughly 1.3 million cases and more than 80,000 deaths in the US, which is home to 330 million.

The coronavirus situation in South Korea seemed so stable, in fact, that the country held a nationwide election last month with no major public health repercussions reported so far. And just under two weeks ago, South Korea reported no new domestic coronavirus cases.

Last Wednesday, then, the government chose to loosen — with major caveats — the social distancing restrictions that had been imposed since March 22.

South Koreans could go on with their everyday routines so long as they adhered to guidelines promoting “distancing in daily life.” Those guidelines included keeping sick individuals at home, maintaining 6 feet of distance between people, washing hands for at least 30 seconds, and keeping homes well-ventilated and clean. The elderly were still encouraged to stay inside, or at a minimum, avoid heavily crowded spaces.

If South Koreans thought life was returning to normal, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that wasn’t the case. The loosened restrictions “should not be interpreted as implying a return to ‘normalcy’ as before the outbreak but rather as an effort to achieve both infectious disease prevention/control and everyday life,” the KCDC said in a May 6 coronavirus update.

But the uptick in cases has officials fearing the worst, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday telling residents to “brace for the pandemic’s second wave” and warning that the country faces a “prolonged” war against the virus.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Moon continued.

South Korea is already taking aggressive measures to stop the new outbreak

South Korea’s social distancing measures were always voluntary, which meant people continued to go outside and attend parties as private businesses remained open.

That behavior angered Park, Seoul’s mayor. “I would like to ask young people to refrain from behaving recklessly and in ways that might end up leading our community into a crisis,” he said in a speech on April 13.

Still, South Korean officials didn’t take extensive measures to keep tabs on people as the number of cases remained low. Now that they’re ticking upward again, Park is calling on those who were at the nightclubs visited by the 29-year-old over the weekend of May 1 to voluntarily come forward and get tested.

The problem, Park laid out during a Monday press conference, is that only around 2,400 people on a list of 5,500 known clubbers have done so, making it hard for health officials to track who may have come into contact with the nightclub’s “patient zero.” To get a better picture, Park said Seoul is working with law enforcement and industry to obtain a list of people who were near the clubs and surrounding areas.

“We trust that the police department and telecommunications companies will cooperate in a swift manner considering the urgency of the situation,” he said. Those who don’t come forward face a fine of around $1,600.

“If Seoul falls, so will all of Korea,” Park said.

There are obvious privacy concerns with the government tracking people’s whereabouts, especially when they were legally permitted to spend the night out.

The other problem, though, is that the infection cluster happened in Itaewon, a Seoul neighborhood where clubs cater to LGBTQ+ patrons. That community faces immense discrimination in South Korea, which might make those who attended the nightclubs reluctant to come forward or be identified by the government.

According to the Washington Post on Monday, hate speech about the infections stemming from Itaewon are already rampant online. Chingusai, a South Korean pro-LGBTQ+ group, put out a statement denouncing such language: “These threats make it harder for those who came into contact with a virus carrier to report themselves due to fears of getting outed.”

All this goes to show the many, many complications that can arise when a country is opened up before a vaccine or an effective treatment for the coronavirus is found. If these kinds of problems can happen in South Korea, they can happen almost anywhere.

Catherine Kim contributed reporting to this story.

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