The government is finally -- and belatedly -- moving to halt the phased program for a return to normal that began last month despite a flurry of warnings from medical experts and was followed by a record surge in new COVID-19 cases and deaths amid worries about the new omicron variant.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Wednesday the government considers the current virus situation as “very serious” and will implement stricter social distancing rules.
Details of new toughened social distancing measures, including reduced limits on private gatherings and curfews on business hours, are set to be announced Friday and enforced for the next two weeks.
The reversal of the social distancing program is, if anything, a reluctant admission by the Moon Jae-in administration that its hasty and short-sighted loosening of social distancing restrictions resulted in failure.
The much-touted “Living with COVID-19” scheme turned out to be a short-lived, costly experiment that sickened many more citizens and brought the country’s already taxed medical system to a virtual paralysis.
Since Nov. 1 when the restrictions were lifted, virus-related data has sounded alarms for almost all categories. The number of new infections and the death toll kept rising, while the intensive care beds for struggling patients dried up. Collateral damage was also reported as patients with severe illnesses not linked to COVID-19 were unable to get proper treatment or surgery due to the lack of medical staff and hospital beds.
For all the dire warning signs, President Moon remained overly optimistic about the situation, as revealed in a town hall meeting late last month. At the time, the number of new cases had stayed above 3,000 for five days in a row but Moon did not have a sense of urgency, saying the government was “anticipating that the daily cases could rise as high as 5,000 or 10,000.”
In retrospect, it is deeply regrettable that Moon then said the country “will not stop the gradual return to daily life just because the number of confirmed cases rises.” Moon’s overconfidence about the country’s coronavirus policies was not new. He earlier said Korea was responding to the virus “better than any other advanced country.”
While Moon was preoccupied with the success of the “K-quarantine,” the number of cases exploded and the return to normal proved untenable. The government -- belatedly again -- expanded the use of the virus pass and reduced the maximum number of private gatherings to six on Dec. 6, but the negative trend has not shown any signs of abating.
On Wednesday, the daily virus cases hit a fresh high of 7,850, compared with 1,684 recorded on Nov. 1. The number of critically ill patients also reached an all-time high of 964. There were 70 deaths, down from a record high of 94 a day earlier.
The country’s medical system is also struggling with a shortage of staff and an influx of COVID-19 patients. To prevent the health care system from collapsing, the government now requires all COVID-19 patients with less severe symptoms to stay home for self-isolation. For the at-home care program to work, proper monitoring and screening for patients who need in-hospital care should be done, but this task is likely to be more difficult than previously thought if new cases continue to rise.
The outlook remains grim. If the current virus trend goes unchecked, the nation could see daily cases reaching 10,000 by the end of December, according to medical experts.
The government has to tighten restrictions and take timely measures to reduce the death toll and help patients get much-needed treatment. Considering the worsening situation, there is no room for hesitation.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com