New Covid-19 Outbreaks Test South Korea’s Strategy

By Choe Sang-Hun

South Koreans have been proud of their government’s handling of the virus. New outbreaks raise doubt.

A customer getting her temperature checked at a cafe in Seoul on Monday. The government is trying to sustain a fragile balance between controlling the virus and safeguarding the economy.
A customer getting her temperature checked at a cafe in Seoul on Monday. The government is trying to sustain a fragile balance between controlling the virus and safeguarding the economy.Credit...Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Choe Sang-Hun

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 musical phenomenon K-pop.

Its two-pronged strategy of fighting the virus while keeping the economy running appeared to work. The country all but halted a large outbreakwithout closing its borders, locking down towns or ​drawing an outcry over draconian restrictions on speech and movement. ​The country was held up as a model for the rest of the world.

But now, South Korea is struggling with a second wave of infections, and its strategy seems as precarious as ever. The new wave is spreading from the populous Seoul metropolitan area and through people deeply suspicious of President Moon Jae-in’s epidemiological efforts. To complicate matters more, some of the government’s strongest allies in the fight against​ Covid-19, young doctors, have turned against Mr. Moon. They have gone on strike, unhappy with his medical reform program.

The government is also trying to sustain a fragile balance between controlling the virus and safeguarding the economy, and between ​using ​government power ​to protect public health and not infringing on civil liberties.

“Our quarantine strategy, once considered a model to ​follow in the rest of the world, is suddenly faced with a crisis,” Mr. Moon admitted last week. “The whole nation is in a difficult situation. The people’s lives are crumbling.”

South Korea’s daily caseload of new infections​, once fewer than 10, has been in the triple digits​ every day since Aug. 14, taking the country of 50 million people to more than 20,000 cases and 326 deaths, according to a New York Times database. ​The virus has spread quickly from churches and a large antigovernment protest rally. Mr. Moon’s government has threatened lawsuits​ and prosecution against ​churchgoers and protesters accused of impeding officials’ efforts to control the epidemic. But they’ve pushed back, calling him a dictator who is running the country under “quarantine martial law.”

​Undeterred, Mr. Moon recently tightened restrictions, banning church gatherings and large outdoor rallies and shutting down nightclubs and bars. Epidemiologists have called for more drastic social distancing measures, like banning all gatherings of more than 10 people and closing hundreds of thousands of other places, like professional sports games, cafes and wedding halls.

But Mr. Moon has hesitated to go that far, fearing the damage to the already-shrinking economy.

ImagePresident Moon Jae-in, center without mask, during a meeting with Protestant church leaders in Seoul last week. Mr. Moon recently banned large church gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
President Moon Jae-in, center without mask, during a meeting with Protestant church leaders in Seoul last week. Mr. Moon recently banned large church gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.Credit...Yonhap/EPA, via Shutterstock

​ “We are at crossroads,” Jung Eun-kyeong, the director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Wednesday. “This coming week will decide whether we can stabilize the second wave of infections.”

In late February, ​South Korea was reporting as many as 900 cases a day. But ​the country quickly flattened the curve of new infections, thanks to​ its​ aggressive contact-tracing and testing program. Also key to the success was a public that embraced curbs on their civil rights for the sake of fighting the pandemic.

​​People wore masks daily. Few complain​ed​ when the government aggressively used surveillance-camera footage, smartphone location data and credit card purchase records to help trace ​​coronavirus patients and establish transmission chains. South Koreans also gave Mr. Moon’s governing Democratic Party a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in April​.

By May, South Korea was confident that it could become more active economically without allowing the contagion to come roaring back. It started a campaign called “A New Daily Life With Covid-19​,” urging people to go out, socialize, spend and have fun to keep the economy rolling. If there was any backsliding, restrictions ​would snap back into place.

Pedestrians in Seoul last month. ​Millions of South Koreans hit the road and shops during a three-day weekend in mid-August.Credit...Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We cannot delay returning to normal life forever,” Mr. Moon said then. “Quarantine is the beginning of economic recovery, but it doesn’t bring us the food.”

The government unleashed 14 trillion won, or $11.8 billion, in cash gifts to households to help shore up domestic consumption. In late May, it opened 256 beaches across the country for summer vacationers. In July, it allowed Bible studies and other small religious gatherings, previously banned as ​​a​ hard-to-monitor avenue for virus spreading.

In August, just days before the spike in cases, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that South Korea’s economy would contract only 0.8 percent this year, compared with an average of 7.5 percent for other countries in the group. ​​

​Millions of South Koreans hit the road and shops in mid-August during a three-day weekend created by Mr. Moon’s government to give “a brief but valuable time of rest for people weary over the prolonged epidemic.”

But even before the holiday began on Aug. 15, signs emerged that relaxing restrictions was leading to more infections.

Days earlier, a fast-growing outbreak ​erupted in Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, home to a faith-based, conservative political movement against Mr. Moon. Another outbreak started on Aug. 15, when vocal critics of Mr. Moon’s policies, especially on North Korea, ​attended a large antigovernment rally in downtown Seoul. Some Sarang Jeil Church members had mingled with the crowd, health officials said.

On Wednesday, the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, chief pastor of Sarang Jeil Church​, held a news conference where he accused the government ​of scapegoating churches to silence its critics and cover up ​its own epidemiological failures.

An antigovernment rally in downtown Seoul on Aug. 15. Officials fear such rallies have been a source of new infections.Credit...Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA, via Shutterstock

A dozen other smaller outbreaks have​ also erupted, ​many of them in churches​, prompting the government to shut down all church services, except those online.

Updated September 1, 2020

    • Outdoor gatherings lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.
    • In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
    • The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It's a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it's windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
    • As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out 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 last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, 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’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.

The rising daily number of new cases is not the only alarming development. The percentage of ​patients for whom the source of infection could not be determined has also risen, to more than 21 percent in the second half of August from 10 percent in the first half.​ This has raised fears that the health authorities are losing control of the routes of transmission.

As the new outbreaks threaten to tarnish one of ​his biggest achievements as president, ​Mr. Moon has sounded increasingly strident, suggesting he will use the blunt force of the law to punish those ​who impede the government’s epidemiological efforts.​ His government has proclaimed ​“zero tolerance​” and “maximum penalties.”

“No freedom of religion, assembly or expression can be asserted at the cost of such damage,” ​he has said, accusing the politically active conservative church members of spreading the virus and endangering the economy.

“Prayers may give you peace of mind but don’t protect you from the virus,” he said.

The police have so far referred 959 people for prosecution for violating laws to control the virus, including hundreds charged with flouting a government order to wear masks or ​breaking quarantine to go out to eat, drink, smoke, take out the garbage or report to their workplaces. The 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 church congregations.

A coronavirus testing station in Seoul last week.Credit...Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The authorities have also detained 202 people on suspicion of ​spreading disinformation and leaking personal data​, including people who claimed on YouTube that the government was manipulating test results to keep dissidents in quarantine. ​The southeastern city of Busan sued ​six ​churches that defied government orders not to meet for services. ​

In the past week, the government announced a series of measures that had been discussed before the pandemic, like increasing the number of medical school students. But young doctors went on strike in protest, saying that there are already enough doctors and that the government instead needed to invest in improving medical services in rural areas. The government sued several doctors who refused to return to work.

The doctors said they were also disillusioned with the government’s heavy-handed methods in trying to push through its controversial policies while the whole nation was struggling with the pandemic.

“But talking to them has been like talking to a wall,” said Dr. Park Jee-hyun, a leader of the doctors on strike.

South Koreans on a beach on the southern resort island of Jeju last month. After its initial success in controlling the virus, the government had encouraged more economic activity.Credit...Daniel De Carteret/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images