A platform in a Daegu subway station is virtually empty of passengers. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

South Korea’s coronavirus nightmare continued to pick up speed on Sunday with 169 new cases reported, bringing the total to 602 – but the rate of increase slowed down after the shock spikes over three previous days.

The Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported the number of cases, and confirmed that the virus is now in all the country’s 17 provinces and cities, according to Yonhap news agency.

Fatalities continued to climb. The first death was reported on Thursday. By Sunday, Covid-19-related mortalities had reached five.

Also on Sunday, President Moon Jae-in warned of a “watershed” moment as the nation went to its highest viral alert level.

But while patient numbers increased and the death rate rose, the broad trend was sharply downward.

Turning point?

Prior to Sunday, confirmed cases had been doubling on a daily basis since Wednesday. On Wednesday, there were just 51 nationwide. On Thursday, the total more than doubled to 104. On Friday it soared to 204. Then on Saturday, it more than doubled again, to 433.

Given the rate of increase over previous days, Sunday’s total could have been expected to be around 860-870. But, the number of new cases turned out to be well under half the previous day’s total.

Even so, one expert warned that Sunday’s slowdown in the virus’ rate of increase should not be taken as a turning point.

“Two factors go into these statistics: One is the actual incidents, the second is the testing capability,” Ogan Gurel, a non-practicing medical doctor and professor at Daegu Gyeongbok Institute of Science and Technology.

Gurel told Asia Times: “Maybe [it’s because] this is a Sunday. This could also be that they don’t have enough test kits, or it could be that people had flooded in [to test centers] at the beginning.”

More time was needed to see if Sunday’s figures marked a broad turnaround, he suggested. “It will be several more days,” Gurel said. “One day of results does not define a pattern.”  

Another medical professional called Korea’s ongoing outbreak “worrying” but said he was not “alarmed.”

“It is expected, especially with a loose case definition, that more people will be diagnosed, and they may have been ill for days,” Dan Strickland, a doctor with a PhD in epidemiology, told Asia Times by email.

“At this stage, it’s premature to claim to know much about how the outbreak will progress,” Strickland said. “I expect it will work out much like previous coronavirus outbreaks, and indeed some Chinese epidemiologists – who seem to be pretty competent – are predicting, that it will slow down by the end of April.”

Strickland, who has some 30 years’ worth of experience in the field, warned against apocalyptic predictions and related panics.

“Some of the speculation in the other direction is frankly hyperbole,” he said.

Fear central

Over 100 of the 123 new cases recorded on Sunday were in Daegu, Korea’s fourth largest city, which has emerged as a hotbed of the virus. The vast majority of infections stem from services held at the Shincheoji Church, which is headquartered in the city, and whose operations are currently suspended.  

A second hot spot is a hospital outside the city in the town of Cheongdo.

In Daegu, some took no comfort in Sunday’s downward trend in the number of infected.

“I am terrified…it’s like a disaster, like an atomic just exploded, our lives are entirely changed,” Michelle Han, a Daegu housewife and mother of two children said by telephone. “Our children are not going to kindergarten, everywhere is closed until next week, at least. All educational institutions are closed, people are just staying home and not going anywhere.”

And with rumors running rampant, Han said some residents were displaying a siege mentality.

“I went to a hypermarket a couple of days ago. I thought there would be no people there, but were a lot of people buying masks and buying a lot of things,” she said. “There is talk, there is a rumor, that Daegu will be closed down like Wuhan.”