COVID-19 cases in South Korea have reached the 10,000 mark and 1,004 patients have been diagnosed in the Seoul metropolitan areas as of Thursday, with 89 new cases added to the list. The World Health Organization predicts that COVID-19 cases all over the world will exceed one million, with some 50,000 death in the process.
“Loosening the grip on social distancing now will be a risk considering the rapid spread of the virus across the world and the continued influx of foreign visitors into South Korea,” said Prime Minister Chung Sye-gyun, hinting at the possibility of backpedaling the plan to put an end to social distancing and enter the alleviated phase of “lifestyle quarantine” starting from next Monday.
Embarking upon an intense social distancing on March 21, the South Korean government cited a case from China and predicted that the number of newly infected patients will fall by 66% in a week and 88% in two weeks. Even though two weeks have passed, as many as 100 new cases are springing up every day. Sporadic cluster infection at nursing homes and religious facilities have been reported, and incoming COVID-19 patients from abroad are also on the rise. There was a concern that containing the virus without controlling the overseas entries would be impossible, and that concern has become reality.
If this trend continues, there would not be a drastic cut in new cases before the April 15 general elections. Some worry that resuming school within the first semester is no longer a viable option. It is necessary to keep the social distancing strictly for the time being, but the priority should be to crank up the intensity of quarantine. A new measure must be taken to prevent group infection at highly contagious venues such as indoor sports centers or entertainment facilities. If slapping finds on a failure of compliance with “recommendations” is not effective enough, more rigorous steps such as a forced closure followed by financial compensation during the idling could be considered as potential solution.
Foreign influx regulation needs to be stricter than now. Of 36 incoming cases from overseas reported on Thursday, about half were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus at their community hospitals, not at the airport. Starting from this month, those who have entered South Korea are required to put themselves under house quarantine for two weeks, but from the very first day, there was an overlapping in the movement between those infected and those tested negative, owing to ill-prepared transportation. A total inspection is needed to screen those coming from Europe and the United States to prevent the possibility of community infection by symptomless patients.
People are getting exhausted from a prolonged bout of social distancing. But if we lower our guard now, it could torpedo all the effort we’ve made so far. Keeping the intense social distancing for a while is the fastest way back to normal: we should refrain from going outside, avoid religious or sports events in a closed space, and keep the basic rules of hygiene.