Each weekend last month brought ever larger crowds to popular areas in Seoul and other big cities in South Korea. Many remaining COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted earlier as cases fell sharply in April, but people still felt cautious. The lifting of the outdoor mask mandate in early May combined with warm weather and a continued drop in cases gave people confidence to get out and spend time with family and friends. By month’s end, Seoul looked and felt much like it had in 2019, except for ubiquitous face masks indoors and on public transportation.
South Korea’s quick return to normal without lockdowns and a low death rate sets it apart from other advanced countries. Some countries, such as Denmark, began returning to normal earlier than South Korea, but they experienced lockdowns and a higher death rate. Other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand experienced strict lockdowns, but maintained a low death rate. What is the secret to South Korea’s success?
In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, South Korea was lauded for implementing widespread testing, contact tracing and home quarantining. After a brief border closure, the country adopted a quarantine system that, while restrictive, allowed for travel at a time when many other nations maintained blanket travel bans. The country also limited the group sizes and business hours, but there were no lockdowns. The measures kept cases, and therefore deaths, very low until the end of 2021, by which time most of the population had been vaccinated. When the omicron wave hit in early 2022, the country was well protected and managed to keep death rates low compared to the number of cases.
As elsewhere, the restrictions affected businesses, particularly in hospitality and travel, negatively. Shops and restaurants went out of business, leaving many owners deeply in debt and forcing workers to scramble for something new. Compared to many other nations, school closures, full and partial, lasted a long time in Korea, which frustrated parents who worried about the effectiveness of online learning and the long-term impact on their children.
Of all the measures that South Korea took, masking stands out as the secret to the country’s success. Mask mandates and broad public cooperation at the beginning of the pandemic set the tone for cooperation that has continued to this day. People believe that, apart from vaccination, masking is the most important thing individuals can do to protect themselves from the virus. They know that masking is not perfect, but they also know that most people got the virus through exposure at home to infected family members. Trust in masks explains why most people still wear them in crowded places more than a month after the mandate to do so has been lifted. It also explains why many people are willing to pay for high-quality KF94 masks.
Debates over masks in many other countries focused on their effectiveness from a scientific perspective. This created a situation where people opposed to mask mandates would cook the data to argue that they are ineffective “COVID theater.” Supporters, which include most of the public health establishment, turned to data to justify their recommendations and encourage cooperation.
The focus on scientific justifications has left out an important aspect of mask wearing: a sense of security. Universal mask wearing gives people a sense of security because they do not have to worry about what other people might do. People, particularly seniors aged 75 and up, who have been vaccinated and boosted would have greater fear of going out in public if they had to worry about unmasked people in a shop or on public transportation.
The sense of security helped South Korea get through the pandemic because it gave people confidence to try to live normal lives amid the various restrictions. This in turn helped limit economic damage and social dislocation. Seoul looks and feels like 2019 because it suffered less pandemic-imposed changes and trauma. Masks and high vaccination rates helped South Korea to “keep calm and carry on.”
Barring the appearance of a deadlier variant, the pandemic in South Korea will fade, but COVID-19 will still be with us. This leaves the tricky question of when to lift the indoor mask mandate. Masking is a burden and people want to be free of masks, but they also want the sense of security they provide. Finding the balance between these competing needs will test the judgement of South Korean health officials once again.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.