The South Korean government announced Wednesday that, based on the principle of reciprocity, it would ban arrivals from visa-exempt and visa-free countries. A total of 88 nations out of the 148 countries that have imposed a travel ban on South Korean nationals will be subject to the temporary ban: 34 countries including Australia and Canada that are eligible for visa-free entry and 54 countries including Thailand, France and Russia that have signed a visa-exempt agreement with South Korea.
Since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, health experts have strongly argued for a travel ban on China where the virus has originated. Now, healthcare workers are asking to close borders at least until schools open back up as new cases are rapidly rising in the United States and European countries. Border closures might not completely stop the spread but can certainly slow it down, which could help buy more time to respond.
The government had maintained the principle of “openness” even when more than 180 countries closed their borders to South Korea, and this sudden change in its stance is probably due to the fast spread of Covid-19 in other countries and the increasing testing costs and administrative pressure that come from having the doors open. On Wednesday, overseas arrivals amounted to 24 out of 53 new cases. More than 5,000 people arrive in the country everyday, and they are all required to self-isolate for 14 days due to a new restriction introduced last Wednesday. It is expected that the number of people in self-isolation who should be monitored by the government will soon reach 90,000, and 30 percent of them are foreigners. Considering the pressure on the healthcare system, it is a step in the right direction even though the government would have to face criticism that it should have done it much earlier.
The 76-day lockdown in Wuhan was lifted on Wednesday, raising concerns that there might be a second wave of infections in China. The international community is questioning the credibility of Chinese reports of new cases, which have remained double digit for days. A professor of Wuhan University said the number of asymptomatic patients in Wuhan could be 20,000.
The new travel ban does not affect China as it is not a visa-exempt country, which means no new measures have been taken to prevent risks coming from China. China is practically banning South Koreans from entering the country with 28 out of its 31 regions suspending the visas or ordering self-isolation. The government should apply the principle of reciprocity and be more aggressive in reducing risks from China by introducing measures such as strict health checks in the visa review process.