As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues spreading in record numbers across South Korea, the Korean government has been dropping one social distancing rule after another. It now plans a return to normalcy by the end of March.
The curfew on dining establishments was extended by one hour to 10 p.m. in late February. Bobby Sul, the owner of OBok Restaurant, a pork soup diner in Busan, said, “I think the fact the government is loosening restrictions despite the number of cases may give the public some sense of security that things are moving in a positive direction.”
Enforcement of the nationwide vaccine pass was also paused on February 28. The decision follows a court ruling against the three-month old system.
Dong-a Ilbo’s reporters in Seoul found the electronic QR code scanners were removed completely from eight of ten cafes they visited. One proprietor said he was relieved he would have more customers and less fights. However, some expressed concern that the likelihood of catching coronavirus from unvaccinated customers might increase. A 60-year-old operator said, “It's convenient because I don't have to check each vaccine pass, but I feel more nervous.”
The death rate by case of Omicron infections cited by the government is between 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent. The daily death toll did set a new record of one hundred fourteen on February 27, due to the high number of cases. The seven-day average has been rising since February 8. New cases have been rising since the beginning of the year, peaking at 171,000 last week, after Omicron was first detected in Korea in December. Now 98 percent of new cases are Omicron.
The government says the pause in the vaccine pass is only temporary, but it is hard to see why or how it could be reinstated. A new vaccine mandate would have to be redesigned to withstand the scrutiny of the courts. Part of the ruling said that the vaccine mandate is contradictory with the government’s plans to return to normalcy by the end of March. If, as government projections hold, Omicron peaks in mid-March, and the country drops quarantine and social distancing rules thereafter, then it would be hard to justify maintaining the mandate.
“According to health authorities Feb. 21, in people under 50 the case fatality rate for Omicron is close to zero. Among fully vaccinated people of all ages, Omicron is about as fatal as, or even less so than the seasonal flu,” the ruling by a Daegu court read.
The government also cited the high toll Omicron is taking on local clinics. In addition to vaccine certificates, negative test results are also accepted as a means to enter public facilities. COVID-19 clinics are burdened by having to conduct so many tests and issue so many certificates. The ministry of public health says about half of the 250,000 rapid tests a day conducted at public health facilities are for the purpose of gaining a pass for entry.
But if clinics are stressed with 150,000 or so positive cases a day, it will get much worse when cases surpass 200,000. By the time case load declines, Korea is supposed to be returning to normalcy. As reporter Kim Do-yoon wrote for Daum News, “It was announced as a temporary suspension, but in fact it is an indefinite suspension” that will only be reimplemented if there is a new variant or other shock that necessitates it.
There are fears that the end of the vaccine pass will cause fewer people to take the booster shot, which is required for full vaccination status within six months of the first two shots, but more than half of Korean adults have had their third shot.
The Korean government had already been shifting tact out of necessity. PCR tests were scrapped for most people in favor of rapid testing when the supply of PCR tests could no longer keep up with Omicron. Record keeping at restaurants ceased, because it was not possible to trace so many cases. Quarantine was cut from fourteen days to seven. South Korea recognized there was no realistic way to stop the spread of Omicron and prioritized managing it instead.
Jung Hae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University College of Medicine, wrote in an op-ed for Hani, “Up to and throughout the Delta wave, policy was focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19 to reduce the number of cases. But now, we have transitioned to a strategy of tolerating the spread while minimizing the damage it causes. This policy shift was inevitable given the lack of alternatives: the Omicron variant is extremely transmissible, and fewer than 5% of Korean adults remain unvaccinated.”
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.