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19 January 2021

How South Korea’s Covid-19 success faltered

Inconsistency and perceived complacency is undermining faith in the government’s previously lauded strategy.  

By Raphael Rashid

South Korea’s aggressive response to Covid-19 has often been praised internationally as a success, becoming the envy of many countries around the world struggling to control their own outbreaks. One year on, the nation’s tight-grip approach to containing the virus is now slowly taking its toll on citizens – and has become the subject of fierce attacks from critics. 

The country detected its first Covid-19 case on 20 January 2020. One month later, a major cluster of cases hit, centred around the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu. The religious group was blamed for thousands of infections and made sensational headlines around the world. Health authorities, however, were ready. Their weapon of choice? Pervasive contact tracing. It proved effective in flattening the curve of the country’s first wave without the need to close private businesses, and provided an example to the world of how best to tackle the virus.

Years in the making, South Korea’s rigorous test, trace and treat regimen was born out of past mistakes. In 2015, the country was struck by an outbreak of Mers, another coronavirus, accounting for 186 cases and 38 deaths. The government’s response at the time was considered flawed, and resulted in the creation of a private-public mechanism allowing for extensive testing, as well as a legal system to do so through revisions to disease prevention legislation: among other new powers, authorities would now be able to pry into mobile network location, CCTV footage and credit card records to aid epidemiological investigation.

Following the 2020 Shincheonji outbreak, other innovations also gained headlines around the world – drive-thru testing, hospital “phone booth” testing sites and government intervention in the manufacturing and supply of masks – all helping to boost South Korea’s reputation as a world-leading virus beater.

With images of catastrophic responses abroad, especially outside Asia, early negative attitudes in the country towards the government soon began to subside. By mid-April, approval ratings for the country’s president Moon Jae-in stood at 64.3 per cent, up from 45.0 per cent in early February, according to local pollster Realmeter.

Domestically, South Korea’s success inspired confidence, and was even given a name – “K-quarantine” – a political PR-buzzword encompassing everything from digital surveillance and mass testing to strict social distancing measures and tight border control. The government also published an 88-page guidebook on how to “flatten the curve” using technology instead of lockdowns.

Not all headlines outside South Korea were positive. Questions about privacy and the balance between individual rights and public health were often mentioned. The issue was also raised by local media and the country’s own human rights watchdog. A particular point of contention was the use of emergency smartphone alerts that were deemed too revealing when disclosing information – sometimes personal – of nearby cases to mobile phones within the same vicinity. But, by and large, this never caused significant public opposition at home. That authorities had access to personal information such as credit card records for contact tracing was even less of an issue, largely considered acceptable if it meant benefitting society.

Today, however, the government’s strategy of avoiding lockdowns by rolling out different restrictions in accordance with the number of infections is starting to face criticism. The third wave that struck the country at the end of 2020 was blamed by health experts on public fatigue, as well as more people staying indoors due to cold weather.

The country is now recording hundreds of daily cases and there have been almost 1,300 deaths. This has resulted in prolonged periods of “strengthened” social distancing measures that have hit businesses hard, especially in the service industry, leaving them struggling to recover.

[See also: Should Covid-19 restrictions be lifted if only the elderly are vaccinated?]

The unemployment rate is at a ten-year high. Small businesses have faced either severe restrictions or outright suspensions of trade. Some shuttered gyms recently reopened in defiance, citing unfairness in the system (ballet and taekwondo schools were allowed to hold classes). In response to this backlash, some reopenings were permitted on Monday under tight measures.

Meanwhile, hundreds of cafés and gyms have filed separate lawsuits against the government, seeking compensation for losses suffered due to restrictions. Other inconsistencies in policy, such as banning private gatherings with more than four people in Seoul, while allowing churches to have up to 20 people at meetings, have been criticised.

There has also been confusion about why the government did not follow its own guidelines for imposing a lockdown after meeting the criteria, of more than 800 daily cases for one week, in late December. The government is described as having “sleepwalked” its way into the third wave, with critics accusing it of complacency and a failure to secure enough hospital beds.

There has also been criticism over the slow procurement of vaccines and a reliance on locally produced treatments. The president’s record low popularity in recent weeks has partly been attributed to this. Positive assessment of the government’s Covid-19 response also hovered around 20 per cent in December, compared with around 50 per cent from March through to May last year, according to Gallup Korea.

The country’s vaccine roll-out, now expected later in February, will certainly boost confidence in the government. But any belief in an invincible “K-quarantine” strategy at home is being sustained only in view of how badly other countries are doing. 

[See also: Sweden’s Covid-19 failures have exposed the myths of the lockdown sceptics]

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