South Korea’s daily number of COVID-19 cases reached a record high of 1,030 on Sunday, making it the first to surpass 1,000. As late as last Friday, 600-plus confirmed cases were added to the nationwide aggregate. In just a few days, the coronavirus has spread like wildfire uncontrollably enough to infect 900 to 1,000 people per day. South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday presided over a meeting for the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCH), saying that it is a make-or-break moment for the nation to put every effort into containing the spread of the virus. He ordered the CDSCH to make a bold decision to increase social distancing level if deemed unavoidable.
For the last one week until Sunday, the daily number of newly confirmed cases averaged 719.6, slightly short of 800 or the point from which Level 3 social distancing is put in place. However, medical experts argue that preemptive action should be taken to control the pandemic, given that it is only getting severe at a rapid pace. The South Korean government has failed, without exception, to make a dent in the spread of the coronavirus even by raising a social distancing level to an upper one as many as four times. That is mainly because it missed the perfect timing for a higher social distancing level even though relevant conditions were already satisfied. Level 3 social distancing is a quasi-lockdown according to which 500,000 businesses such as movie theaters and public saunas across the nation are supposed to close. As gatherings and events with ten persons or above are prohibited, wedding ceremonies are not allowed. Despite such a wide range of social impacts, the Level 3 measure should be taken in time. Otherwise, it will incur more significant economic harm. European countries are considering a complete lockdown to prevent the situation from getting worse around the Christmas holidays.
The last straw for the South Korean medical system is not too distant. Even in the Seoul metropolitan area equipped with comparably well-established health and medical infrastructure, more than 500 confirmed cases are on the waiting list for hospitalization due to lack of beds. Last Friday, six confirmed patients in Gyeonggi Province could not find any medical center for hospitalization nearby, ending up being transferred to Mokpo City Medical Center, 300km off the region. At one point over last weekend, all hospital emergency rooms located in Seoul were unavailable. With all isolation beds in ERs filled with COVID-19 patients, non-COVID-19 emergency patients have no option but to be transferred here and there until they get a bed. It is worrisome that such a lack of emergency room capacity may cause a patient to be left uncared for and end up dying just like a high school student in Gyeongsan when the first wave of COVID-19 hit hard Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province. The government should make a sufficient number of beds available in state-run hospitals and issue an order for private-sector medical centers to provide a certain number of beds in exchange for reasonable compensations.
With the COVID-19 pandemic lasting so long, self-employed businesses are suffering indescribably terrible damage. Domestic demand has shrunken throughout the pandemic by a larger gap than over the 2008 global financial crisis. With Level 3 social distancing put in place, domestic consumption is estimated to scale back by 16.6 percent annually. The government should nimbly supply emergency disaster relief funds for small business owners who willingly endure the loss from business closure for the sake of virus control.
Even with the situation getting worse over time, skiers flocked to ski resorts that opened last weekend. Many people waiting in line for lifts without any social distancing in mind only drove medical professionals at the forefront of the pandemic into despair and frustration. Despite being entertainment facilities, some lounge clubs were full of visitors early in the morning because they falsely registered as traditional restaurants. If the spread of the coronavirus is left unaddressed for some time, South Korea will likely see thousands of confirmed cases every day, just as European countries have done. The government's inaction may automatically lead to the failure in acquiring vaccines by the first half of next year. All we can do instead is to withstand the catastrophe with face masks on and social contact and interaction off. It is the time that every single citizen should voluntarily do his or her best effort.