SEOUL, South Korea – 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 music phenomenon K-Pop.
The two-pronged strategy of fighting the virus while keeping the economy going appeared to be working. The country has all but stopped a major outbreak without closing its borders, locking down cities, or creating an outcry over draconian restrictions on language and movement. The country was held as a model for the rest of the world.
But now South Korea is grappling with a second wave of infections, and its strategy seems more precarious than ever. The new wave is spreading out of the populous metropolitan area of Seoul and through people who are deeply suspicious of President Moon Jae-in's epidemiological efforts. To complicate matters even further, some of the government's strongest allies in the fight against Covid-19, young doctors, have turned against Mr. Moon. They went on strike and were dissatisfied with his medical reform program.
The government is also trying to maintain a fragile balance between controlling the virus and protecting the economy, and between using state power to protect public health and not violating civil liberties.
"Our quarantine strategy, which was once considered a model for the rest of the world, is suddenly facing a crisis," Moon admitted last week. “The whole nation is in a difficult situation. People's lives are crumbling. "
South Korea's daily number of new infections, once less than 10, has been in the triple digits every day since August 14, bringing the country of 50 million people to more than 20,000 cases and 326 deaths database, according to a New York Times database. The virus spread quickly in churches and at a large anti-government protest. Mr. Moon's government has threatened legal proceedings and prosecution against churchgoers and protesters alleged to have impeded officials in efforts to combat the epidemic. But they pushed back and called him a dictator who rules the country under "quarantine martial law".
Undeterred, Mr. Moon recently tightened restrictions, banning church gatherings and large outdoor rallies, and closing nightclubs and bars. Epidemiologists have called for more drastic social distancing measures, such as banning all gatherings of more than 10 people and closing hundreds of thousands of other places such as professional sports games, cafes and wedding halls.
But Mr. Moon has hesitated to go that far for fear of the damage to the already shrinking economy.
"We are at a crossroads," said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Wednesday. "This coming week will decide whether we can stabilize the second wave of infections."
At the end of February, South Korea was reporting up to 900 cases a day. However, thanks to its aggressive contact tracing and testing program, the country quickly flattened the curve of new infections. The key to success was also having a public campaigning to fight the pandemic by restricting their civil rights.
People wore masks every day. Few complained when the government aggressively used surveillance camera footage, smartphone location data, and credit card purchase records to track down coronavirus patients and set up transmission chains. South Koreans also gave Mr. Moon's ruling Democratic Party a landslide victory in April's general election.
By May, South Korea was confident it could become more economically active without the contagion returning. It launched a campaign called "A New Daily Life with Covid-19" encouraging people to go out, socialize, spend money and have fun in order to keep the economy going. If there was a relapse, the restrictions would snap back into place.
"We cannot delay going back to normal life forever," Mr. Moon said then. "Quarantine is the beginning of the economic recovery, but it doesn't bring us the food."
The government released 14 trillion won or $ 11.8 billion in cash gifts to households to support domestic consumption. At the end of May, 256 beaches across the country were opened to summer vacationers. In July, it allowed Bible studies and other small religious gatherings that had previously been banned as a difficult-to-monitor way of spreading viruses.
In August, just days before cases began to surge, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecast that the South Korean economy would shrink only 0.8 percent this year, compared to an average of 7.5 percent in other countries in the group. .
Millions of South Koreans took to the streets and stores in mid-August over a three-day weekend launched by Mr. Moon's government to provide "a brief but valuable rest period for people tired of the ongoing epidemic are".
But even before the holiday began on August 15, there were signs that relaxing restraints were leading to more infections.
Days earlier, a rapidly growing outbreak broke out at Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, home to a faith-based, conservative political movement against Mr. Moon. Another outbreak began on August 15, when vocal critics of Mr. Moon's policies, particularly with respect to North Korea, attended a large anti-government rally in downtown Seoul. Some members of the Sarang Jeil Church had mingled with the crowd, health officials said.
On Wednesday, Rev Jun Kwang-hoon, chief pastor of Sarang Jeil Church, held a press conference accusing the government of scapegoating churches in order to silence their critics and cover up their own epidemiological errors.
A dozen other minor outbreaks have also broken out, many of them in churches, causing the government to suspend all services except online services.
The coronavirus outbreak>
frequently asked Questions
Updated September 1, 2020
Why is it safer to hang out together outside?
- Outdoor gatherings reduce the risk as the wind spreads viral droplets and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up and being inhaled in concentrated quantities. This can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long periods of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, virologist at the University of Leicester.
What are the symptoms of the coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus appeared to be primarily a respiratory illness – many patients had a fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, although some people don't show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed the sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and were given supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April the C.D.C. added to list of early signs of sore throat, fever, chills, and muscle pain. Gastrointestinal disorders such as diarrhea and nausea have also been observed. Another tell-tale sign of infection can be a sudden, profound decrease in your sense of smell and taste. In some cases, teenagers and young adults have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes – nicknamed "covid toe" – but few other serious symptoms.
Why does it help to stand three feet away from others?
- The coronavirus spreads mainly through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using this measure, bases its six-foot recommendation on the idea that most of the large droplets that people make when they cough or sneeze fall within six feet of the ground. But six feet has never been a magical number that guarantees complete protection. For example, sneezing, according to a recent study, can trigger droplets that are far farther than two meters away. It's a rule of thumb: it is best to stand six feet apart, especially when it's windy. But always wear a mask even if you think they are far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am i immune now?
- As of now, this seems likely for at least a few months. There have been terrifying reports of people appearing to be suffering from a second attack of Covid-19. However, experts say these patients may have a lengthy course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may only last in the body for two to three months, which may seem worrying, but that's perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it is highly unlikely to be possible in a short window of time after the initial infection or make people sick the second time.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
The increasing daily number of new cases is not the only alarming development. The percentage of patients in whom the source of infection could not be determined also increased from 10 percent in the first half of the year to over 21 percent in the second half of August. This has raised concerns that health authorities are losing control of the routes of transmission.
As the new outbreaks threaten to tarnish one of his greatest achievements as president, Mr. Moon has listened increasingly strict, suggesting that he will use the blunt force of the law to punish those who hinder the government's epidemiological efforts . His government has declared "zero tolerance" and "maximum penalties".
"No freedom of religion, assembly or expression can be asserted at the expense of such damage," he said, accusing politically active conservative church members of spreading the virus and jeopardizing the economy.
"Prayer may give you peace of mind, but it won't protect you from the virus," he said.
Police have so far prosecuted 959 people for violating laws to combat the virus, including hundreds charged with violating a government order on wearing masks or breaking quarantine to eat, drink, smoke, take out the trash or themselves to be able to report their jobs. 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 parishes.
Authorities also arrested 202 people on suspicion of spreading disinformation and disclosing personal information, including people who claimed on YouTube that the government manipulated test results to keep dissidents in quarantine. The southeastern city of Busan sued six churches for defying government orders not to meet for church services. .
Last week the government announced a number of measures that had been discussed before the pandemic, such as increasing the number of medical students. But young doctors went on strike in protest, saying that there are already enough doctors and that the government should instead invest in improving medical care in rural areas. The government sued several doctors who refused to return to work.
Doctors said they were also disaffected with the government's persistent methods of enforcing its controversial policies while the whole nation grappled with the pandemic.
"But talking to them was like talking to a wall," said Dr. Park Jee-hyun, a leader of the striking doctors.