The world has been looking to South Korea as a model for how to handle COVID-19. But a fresh spike in cases is putting that reputation at risk.
Could COVID-19 be making a comeback South Korea just as the country is returning to normal life?
The world had been eyeing how South Korea has handled the virus after early intervention appeared to keep its death toll relatively low.
But, on Thursday, it reported its biggest jump in coronavirus cases in more than 50 days.
Korean health officials are warning that the spread of the virus is getting harder to track, which risks erasing some of the big steps forward the country was making.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 67 of the 79 new cases reported were from the Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live.
Currently, 11,344 coronavirus cases have been recorded since the outbreak of the pandemic in South Korea. 269 people have died.
Some restrictions reimposed
Following an emergency meeting, the government decided to shut public facilities such as parks, museums and state-run theatres in the metropolitan area over the next two weeks to slow the spread of the virus.
Officials also advised private tutorial schools and computer gaming lounges in the area to close during the period or otherwise enforce anti-virus measures.
“The two weeks from now will be crucial in containing infections,” said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, who called for residents in the metropolitan area to avoid unnecessary gatherings and urged companies to keep sick employees off work.
Several superspreader events and facilities
At least 82 infections so far have been linked to workers at a massive warehouse operated by local e-commerce giant Coupang. Health authorities plan to finish testing more than 4,000 workers and visitors to the warehouse later Thursday.
Hundreds of other infections have been linked to nightclubs and other entertainment venues, which saw huge crowds in early May after officials relaxed social distancing guidelines.
Another recent uptick in fresh infections was linked to nightclubs in Seoul's Itaewon entertainment district has raised fears of another big outbreak.
Since the first patient was associated with the nightclubs on May 6, the same day social distancing policy was officially eased, South Korea has confirmed over 250 related cases.
It remains to be seen whether the recent spike in infections forces back a phased reopening of schools, which had been a major accomplishment in the nation’s anti-virus campaign. The Education Ministry on Wednesday said class openings were delayed at 561 schools nationwide because of virus concerns.
Social distancing guidelines may need to be reimposed
South Korea was reporting around 500 new cases per day in early March before managing to stabilise its outbreak with aggressive tracking and testing, which allowed officials to relax social distancing guidelines.
KCDC director Jeong Eun-Kyeong said the country may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions, noting it’s becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track transmissions amid increasing public activity.
“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts," she said. "There’s a need to maximize social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating, to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”
Seoul and nearby cities restored some of the controls in recent weeks by shutting thousands of bars, karaoke rooms, and other entertainment venues to slow the spread of the virus.
The country also began requiring masks on public transit and airline flights this week. Taxi drivers are allowed to refuse passengers not wearing masks.
Still a model for success in defeating the virus?
Because of a new spike in cases, South Korea may be at risk of losing its reputation as a role model for handling the virus. It is often praised internationally for its early strategy of testing and thorough tracing of people with COVID-19.
South Korean officials previously said the nation was approaching its economic and social limits.
Professor Hyukmin Lee, of the Yonsei University College of Medicine, says the government now has to think about whether it can tolerate small outbreaks and let the economy operate smoothly, or if it should restore strict social distancing rules.
In light of the new developments, many countries and leaders are looking at South Korea to see how it will handle this new wave of cases. It is yet another reminder for many that this coronavirus is particularly hard to defeat and a warning sign not to rejoice too early about low case numbers.