One week after Yoon Seok-youl won South Korea’s presidential election and three weeks before he takes office, the country is the COVID-19 hot spot of the world.
Korea recorded over 383,000 cases on Saturday, more than any country on earth. That puts Korea’s weekly case rate at 6,000 per million people. After two years with one of the lowest case rates in the world, Korea has suddenly spiked to a higher rate than Germany, Hong Kong, France, India, and the United Kingdom. South Korea’s case rate is even higher than the United States’ omicron peak in January.
The extreme caseload has exceeded the predictions that government officials relied on when they planned to relax social distancing measures. New daily cases have surpassed 200,000 every day since March 3. Deaths are rising, too, though not at the same rate as cases. On March 11, a new daily record of 269 people died from COVID-19. Even worse, more than 100 have died every day since March 2. However, while deaths are high in absolute numbers, the death rate cited by the government is only 0.15 percent.
Still, the Moon administration continues to move forward on its plan of returning to normalcy in the waning days before president-elect Yoon takes office. Day by day, the authorities eviscerate one social distancing rule after another.
On March 11, it was formally announced that quarantine will no longer be mandatory for travelers to Korea. Before that, Korean citizens and residents who have had all three shots, including boosters, will be exempt from quarantine. Then, starting in April, visitors who have been vaccinated overseas will be able to move about freely in Korea with only a negative PCR test upon arrival.
The late-night curfew on bars and restaurants had been extended to 11 PM earlier in March, and there is speculation that it might be extended yet again or dropped when it expires on March 20.
Smaller changes make a big impact, too. No longer are students and staff who have an infected family member required to stay home from school. With the rapidity of omicron’s spread, that would have left many schools empty.
Online chat rooms are filled up with questions about over-the-counter test results. Just this past weekend, two friends canceled plans with me because they had tested positive. By now, 10 percent of Koreans have been infected with COVID-19, including Seoul Mayor Oh See-hoon.
While it seems like a huge number, about one-third of all of Korea’s COVID-19 cases over the past two years were recorded in the past seven days. The total number of cases of the less severe omicron variant has swamped the numbers of previous variants. Still, the number of severe cases is approaching, but has not surpassed, the number of severe cases of the delta variant in December.
All in all, signs point to a mixed record for President Moon’s handling of the pandemic. A study published in The Lancet found that Korea undercounted deaths by about 40 percent, while the entire globe is said to have undercounted deaths by 200 percent. In addition, Korea’s excess death rate of 4.4 per 100,000 thus far is among the lowest in the world.
The Choson Ilbo, however, criticized Moon for the seeming lack of consistency in the current policies. Starting March 14, people who test positive on rapid-test will be classified as positive, even though rapid tests give false positives 5 percent of the time. “At the current trend, it is impossible to even predict how high the number of daily confirmed cases will increase,” the Ilbo’s editorial board wrote.
It is clear that the incoming president will continue to relax social distancing policies one way or another. Yoon had been critical of what he viewed as the draconian nature of many of Moon’s restrictions. “If the pandemic does not significantly worsen after May, it is highly likely that social distancing measures will be completely eased,” Kwan Seong-sun, a reporter for Cheongnyeon Doctor, a medical news outlet, summarized.
Yoon has said that he will instead focus on greatly expanding South Korea’s capacity for treatment. He pledged to establish a revamped pandemic response headquarters in the executive office and build new dedicated coronavirus hospitals with more ICU beds and negative pressure rooms. Meanwhile, as Korea has not yet gotten through its omicron outbreak, Dr. Eric Topol’s tweeted observation about the “next wave in Europe” is going viral in Korea.
Mitchell Blatt is a former editorial assistant at the National Interest. He is based in Korea where he covers foreign policy, Korean politics, elections, and culture. He has been published in USA Today, The South China Morning Post, The Daily Beast, The Korea Times, and Silkwinds magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Facebook at @MitchBlattWriter.