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Living with COVID-19: What to expect

The shopping district of Myeongdong in Seoul bustles with people during lunchtime last Monday, the first day of the introduction of the eased social distancing
The shopping district of Myeongdong in Seoul bustles with people during lunchtime last Monday, the first day of the introduction of the eased social distancing "With COVID-19" scheme. (Yonhap)
Nov. 1 marked the launch of the South Korean government’s three-phase plan, announced last week, to gradually lift the restrictions previously imposed because of COVID-19.

While many people have welcomed the road map for a return to normal -- particularly local business owners hurt by the prolonged restrictions -- there are still concerns about what is to come in this new era of “living with COVID-19.”

Experts across the country have expressed concern that the new policy could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases, despite over 70 percent of the population being vaccinated. Other countries with high vaccination rates have already implemented plans to return to normal and coexist with the virus, giving Korea a taste of what to expect.

Post-quarantine policies for other regions

Those in the medical community say vaccines do not guarantee safety from COVID-19. The United Kingdom -- one of the first countries to roll out coronavirus vaccines -- was recently hit by a surge in new cases after lifting virtually all of its restrictions. The figure hit nearly 50,000 a day at one point, and on Thursday officials reported 39,842 new cases in the country of 67.1 million people.

In a televised discussion hosted by the Korea Medical Association, Dr. Yum Ho-kee, a lung specialist at Inje University Paik Hospital, projected that Korea’s daily new case count could reach 20,000 under the new policy.

A recent study by Imperial College London found that the delta coronavirus variant is highly transmissible even in a vaccinated population, although researchers stressed that vaccination is the best way to cope with the outbreak.

Yum added that in addition to vaccination, people need to abide by quarantine guidelines such as wearing face masks.

While countries and regions that have lifted restrictions have generally seen increases in COVID-19 cases, some have managed to avoid the drastic spikes seen in the UK.

The state of New York -- which logged a population of about 20.2 million as of 2020 -- lifted its COVID-19 restrictions in June, allowing retail and food service businesses, gyms, hair salons and other businesses to resume normal operations.

At the time, 70 percent of New Yorkers aged 18 or above had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. Unvaccinated people are still expected to wear face masks in accordance with federal guidelines.

While the number of daily new cases was back in the thousands in late July, since October it has fallen gradually. Last week it was reported that COVID-19 cases had fallen by 20 percent from the previous week, as compared with a national decline of 14 percent in the same period.

In August, New York City introduced a requirement for proof of vaccination to enter indoor spaces such as restaurants, fitness centers, movie theaters, concert venues, museums and sports arenas.

The city currently endorses the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommending that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors, but masks are not mandatory there.

Korea currently mandates by law that everyone wear masks in all indoor areas, as well as outdoor areas that cannot ensure a minimum distance of 2 meters between occupants. Masks are mandatory at all meetings and events, regardless of whether they are indoors or outdoors and how far apart the participants are.

New York has been consistent in its focus on raising vaccination rates while pursuing other precautions as well. Last week the state announced that it was ramping up preparations to vaccinate children aged 5-11.

Health officials in New York City have reportedly said the virus could soon become endemic in the city, meaning it will be consistently present but limited to that area.

Life with COVID-19 in New York

Although New Yorkers’ lives are far from completely back to normal, many aspects of normal life have returned. They say far fewer people wear masks outdoors and that socializing is far less restricted than before, provided you have a vaccine card.

But some things do remain unchanged. Many offices still recommend that employees work from home, and there seem to be far fewer in-person meetings than before the pandemic.

Some find the new work environment more effective, particularly as they no longer have the pressure of the infamous commute into the city.

“Remote work has been affected very positively so far because it saves a significant amount of commuting time” -- about two hours -- said Ji Kim, a tax professional currently based in New Jersey and working in New York.

But for Beth, a 30-year-old who just got started at a media outlet in New York, the lack of human contact has been particularly burdensome.

“In my prior job, working from home was very efficient because I knew my co-workers and my boss. But as a new employee, there are little things you naturally pick up from others just by being in the office. This is impossible to do while working from home,” she said.

She added that nonverbal cues such as nuances and gestures are very hard to convey online, particularly without knowing the person well. The lack of interpersonal contact can be troublesome, making it a challenge to build relationships.

“Communication online would be hard. Even cracking a joke, you can’t always convey the subtle nuances,” she said.

Even Kim, who enjoys working from home, said he missed socializing with coworkers, complete with the sports talk and drinks.

The pandemic appears to have changed the way people socialize in general.

Last October, US online dating service Match conducted a study on 5,000 singles in the country and found that 53 percent were prioritizing the search for a relationship, rather than casual dating. It also found that 58 percent were shifting toward more “intentional dating,” indicating a more targeted approach in the era of less personal contact.

Will it ever go back to how it was?

The general consensus is that, however long it takes, things will eventually go back to normal. But whether it will be exactly like it was remains unclear. US author and business professor Scott Galloway suggests in his book “Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunities” that work-from-home arrangements will become the new norm at many companies. The virus has accelerated all business trends, he writes, including e-commerce and remote work, which he speculates will allow tech titans and other powerful players in the business sector to grow more dominant.

But because ideas best flourish in person and it is impossible to completely re-create workplace interaction, Galloway says he believes more companies will adopt a hybrid mode -- combining remote work with regular in-person meetings.

Whether the virus has reshaped the world or merely set things back a bit remains to be seen, as Korea and the rest of the world prepare for a world “with COVID-19.”

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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