President Moon Jae-in has often touted the success of “K-quarantine,” a set of state-led quarantine, outreach and contact tracing policies aimed at containing the COVID-19 pandemic as one of his representative achievements.
K-quarantine, a term first introduced by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, was even used as a key idea of exporting the country’s coronavirus management strategies to other countries.
In recent weeks, things have changed fairly dramatically. It seems a strange, if not absurd, idea for Korea to teach other countries how to cope with COVID-19, as its virus situation is messier than ever.
On Monday, the country added just over 200,000 new COVID-19 infections, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The number of new cases has been on the downturn for four straight days after reaching a record high of 621,281 reported Thursday.
But it is too early to say that the country has seen a peak of new cases led by the highly transmissible omicron variant, especially given a host of negative figures pointing to deeper problems.
First and foremost, the death toll related to COVID-19 remains at a dangerously high level. After reporting a record 429 deaths Thursday, the country has kept witnessing over 300 deaths per day, with Monday’s figure at 329. The number of critically ill patients stood at 1,030, up 97 from the previous day.
The number of new virus cases and virus-related deaths are higher than many other countries fighting the pandemic. But government officials think otherwise.
“The number of patients in critical condition and deaths are on the rise, but the accumulated fatality rate remains at 0.15 percent, less than one-fourth the rates seen in the US, Britain and France,“ Interior Minister Jeon Hae-cheol said Monday.
Jeon based his overly optimistic view on the cumulative fatalities, not the sheer number of over 300 daily deaths. One of the gloomy indicators countering Jeon’s argument is that people find it increasingly hard to make reservations for crematoriums in the metropolitan region. In some cases, it takes as many as five days to carry out a funeral due to the backlog.
The downward trend of new cases is not grounds for optimism either. A growing number of new patients -- especially those with mild symptoms -- don’t bother to report to health authorities, as they know they would be instructed to go for at-home treatment and self-quarantine since getting help from health officials at local clinics is extremely difficult. More parents are getting infected from their kids, who keep attending classes. Workers are spreading the virus among each other. The government is easing social distancing rules, while it should be the other way around.
Starting from Monday, the government eased the limit on private gatherings to eight people from the previous six while maintaining the 11 p.m. business curfew in a bid to help out small-business owners.
Korea’s twisted K-quarantine is raising more questions, with the New York Times reporting that Korea is easing social distancing measures “even as it is experiencing some of the highest per-person infection rates anywhere in the world.”
On Sunday, Cheong Wa Dae released a white paper on state affairs handled during the Moon Jae-in administration. The report picks K-quarantine as one of the top achievements, claiming that the country is seeing a decrease in the number of critically ill patients and fatality rate despite the spread of the omicron variant, thanks largely to the high vaccination rate.
Cheong Wa Dae’s white paper, unfortunately, is likely to ring hollow to many COVID-19 patients here, many of whom are forced to receive treatment at home and feel helpless about their worsening conditions.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org