ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images
A fortnight after South Korea’s latest spike in coronavirus cases – an outbreak linked to nightclubs in Itaewon, Seoul’s self styled gay district – the capital is still reeling from the resurgence of a pandemic it thought was safely under control.
“Itaewon is one of the hottest spots in the city for partying,” says Zach Benson, an entrepreneur living in Seoul. “Right now it’s like a ghost town. Same for Hongdae. It’s usually one of the places where everybody goes for outside shopping and street markets, but now there are hardly any people there.”
Within two weeks of the new outbreak – believed to have begun in the early hours of May 2 – South Korea had recorded 257 new cases of Covid-19, more than double the number in the previous fortnight. For many Koreans, this sudden spate of infections brought back the memories and fears from the original outbreak in the southern city of Daegu at the end of February.
“One of the reasons why the virus spread so rapidly in Daegu was because the Shincheonji Church were hesitant to share the list of people at their gatherings with the government,” says Hayeon Kim, who works in TV production in Seoul. “So it took time before these people could be found and tested. Now because the centre of this latest outbreak is a gay club, and in South Korea we’re a bit conservative when it comes to sexual identity, the people who were there that night are worried to come forwards for testing. But that’s made a lot of people very concerned that this is how the virus will start to spread again.”
This fear has already manifested itself in reports of homophobic abuse targeted towards the country’s LGBTQ+ community. Many others are also trying to keep a low profile about their movements that night. “Young people of all sexualities were out partying as it was a national holiday, and a lot of people online have been calling them brainless,” says Kim. “There are people who were in the Itaewon area who should now tell their employers that they need to self-isolate, but they’re staying quiet because they don’t want their company knowing they were clubbing at 2am during an ongoing crisis. It’s a difficult situation.”
But there are signs that the rigorously efficient contact tracing regime deployed by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) is bringing this new outbreak under control. As of May 20, there have been 336 new cases of Covid-19 since the beginning of the month, a far cry from February when there were more than 3,000 in just two weeks. However, the incident still serves to illustrate the challenge that South Korea and other countries face in avoiding a second wave of the virus in the months and years to come.
Over the past three months, South Korea has won widespread plaudits for how it effectively stopped coronavirus in its tracks. Even now, it has only experienced just over 11,000 cases of coronavirus, having had 9,786 at the end of March. Much of this owes to lessons learnt from the country’s 2015 Mers outbreak. While this only resulted in a relatively benign toll of 186 cases and 36 deaths in comparison to Covid-19, it meant that a number of response measures were put in place for a future crisis.
The most notable of these is a contact tracing regime that utilises credit card records, mobile phone tracking, and GPS location data to track previous movements of infected individuals. “Whenever new confirmed cases are found, the KCDC sends text messages to people who live or work nearby,” says Eunha Shim, an epidemiologist at Soongsil University in Seoul. “You can also go to a website and find out information about those cases. This ranges from a list of the places they visited in the last couple of days, their age and gender, whether they were wearing a mask the entire time or not, and whether their house has been disinfected or not.”
While this level of surveillance would likely be unpopular in many countries, it has played a key role in Korea’s ability to quickly flatten the curve. “From the European point of view, it can be accepted as an excessive violation of personal freedom, but the South Korean government prepared a way to use this information for epidemiological investigations in the aftermath of the 2015 Mers crisis,” says Jaehun Jung, a researcher in the department of preventive medicine at Gachon University in Seongnam, South Korea.
This contact tracing has been applied in conjunction with an exceptionally efficient diagnostic testing regime. When cases first began appearing in Korea towards the end of January, the government urged the private sector to prepare for mass production of testing kits. Combined with dozens of drive-through testing centres located across all major cities, it has meant that the country can test up to 20,000 individuals a day, and obtain the results by the following morning. That scale and speed has been crucial.
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The process of handling each case of Covid-19 has also helped keep fatalities down to remarkably low levels. As of May 20, just 263 Koreans have died of the virus. Any elderly patients, or those with existing chronic illnesses, are sent directly to hospital and even those with mild symptoms are taken to dedicated isolation dorms where they are monitored daily until they recover. Asymptomatic patients are told to quarantine at home where they are visited twice a day by health service officials.
All of this has meant that apart from Daegu, the majority of the country has so far avoided the kind of strict lockdown which has become familiar across much of the world. Yu-jin Kang, who works in e-commerce in Seoul, says that while the majority of people in the capital have been working from home since February, restaurants, bars, and shops have largely remained open for business.
Since March, the primary focus of the KCDC has been on avoiding a second wave of infections. Most scientists believe that the greatest risk of this comes from international travellers, particularly those from Europe and the US. As a result, experts who devised the drive-through testing hubs have been involved in designing a specific screening centre at Incheon International Airport capable of testing many thousands of arrivals every day. There are also specific quarantine protocols before anyone is allowed into the country.
“When they reach Korea they’re required to self-isolate for two weeks,” says Shim. “We have this facility where they can stay and they’re required to download an app, register their symptoms every day for two weeks. They’re also checked every day and afterwards they can be discharged.”
Despite all of this, the outbreak in Itaewon illustrated how an outbreak can still happen even with the most stringent of health policies in place. “This incident, in a nightclub where sexual minorities mostly gathered, showed how this disease attacks society’s vulnerabilities,” says Jung. “In order to prevent social stigma impeding the efforts to prevent Covid-19, Korea is also now introducing new measures such as anonymous diagnostic testing.”
Over the next month, South Korea plans to begin the gradual reopening of schools with reduced days and hours and only for certain year groups, such as those preparing for important university entrance exams. Similar plans are in place in the UK, although Korean scientists believe the task of preventing new infectious outbreaks is much greater. “Unlike South Korea, the UK has already had a wide range of community infections, and when reopened, the second wave is very likely,” says Jung.
The KCDC strongly advocates for the wearing of face masks as a means of preventing virus transmission, still a topic of debate in the UK. In South Korea, individuals are prohibited from using public transport without some form of face covering.
But, most crucially, Shim and Jung believe that public adherence to national health advice has been one of the most critical factors in South Korea’s success in tackling the virus. By and large, the country’s population has respected the KCDC’s message to stay home as much as possible. While part of this is down to the traditional obedience within South Korean culture, they also believe it is because the pandemic has not been politicised.
Shim explains how in South Korea, it has been medical scientists rather than politicians who have spearheaded the national response and led the national briefings. “We don’t involve politics into it, and I think that’s important,” she says. “On the television, we only see people from the medical field. So people trust the advice they’re getting.”
But for everyone in South Korea, it will still be a slow and uncertain road back to normal life. Kim says that while some companies are starting to allow their employees to return to the office, people are reluctant to socialise again, their fears fuelled by the recent spate of cases.
For now the restaurants and cafes of Seoul remain eerily quiet. People are opting for Zoom calls and virtual concerts rather than nightclubs and karaoke bars. “I find that everyone is still very hesitant to meet in person to protect each other,” says Kim. “At the end of April people were starting to feel a little more relaxed but because of these new cases, friends are now cancelling plans because they think they crossed paths with someone who went near Itaewon a few weeks ago. Since February, life in South Korea has moved to a world where everything from spending time with friends, to shopping, and entertainment is done via your computer. It’ll take some time for that to change.”
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