South Korea is facing the worst COVID-19 crisis. While the healthcare system is quickly reaching its limits, 441 new cases were reported on Thursday, the highest in 174 days since March 7 when there were 483 new cases. Seoul, Incheon and the Gyeonggi province recorded more than 300 cases for the first time with 305 cases. Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, 136 cases were reported from various places including apartment buildings, office cafeterias, table tennis clubs and saunas. South Korea’s healthcare system might collapse if this trend continues into the weekend.
The most pressing issue right now is the lack of hospital beds and healthcare workers. Tired from the prolonged pandemic and unprecedented heatwaves, healthcare workers are struggling to cope with the fast increasing number of cases. Patients are waiting longer for a bed, but doctors have gone on a strike with no end date, which hampers the effort to find beds in intensive care units. This risks affecting patients who do not require intensive care. Doctors should stop the strike and save lives first. On its part, the government should acknowledge that its haphazard rush to increase the number of doctors caused a backlash from the medical community. It should also negotiate with them to reach an agreement as opposed to forcing it by canceling their medical licenses.
Stricter social distancing measures have been put in place across the country since Sunday following its introduction in the Seoul metropolitan area on August 16. However, the number of confirmed cases is still rising without significant decrease in traffic. The traffic in the Seoul metropolitan area during the weekend dropped by 16.9 percent compared to 38.1 percent when there was an outbreak in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang Province in Spring this year. The confirmed cases of 33.2 percent reported on Thursday were of unknown origin. Given the virus can be transmitted anywhere, it is important people stay home except for essential travels in order to flatten the curve and prevent the collapse of the healthcare system.
The National Assembly building closed on Wednesday after a journalist with access to the building tested positive for the virus, which inevitably disrupts its schedule including budget settlement, regular sessions and the state audit. With the National Assembly buildings shut down, meetings should take place outside, which cannot be done without changing the law. Even small businesses are switching to working from home, and elementary schools have moved their classes online. It is unacceptable that the National Assembly still does not have any contingency plan for when its building closes seven months after the first case was reported in South Korea on January 20. The National Assembly should take this as an opportunity to review its guidelines for the public sector and essential shops to ensure the country runs smoothly under any circumstances.