A cameraman records footage in empty stands during a pre-season baseball game between Seoul-based Doosan Bears and LG Twins at Jamsil stadium in Seoul on April 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

South Korea, which has won global kudos for undertaking highly effective virus containment measures without lockdowns, is easing its social distancing guidelines, but with extreme caution.

In a week in which new cases have been hovering around the low double and single digits, the government announced it would extend ongoing social distancing restrictions until May 5, but will lift some restrictions.

Experts say the next two weeks will be crucial for South Korea as it takes cautious steps toward normality.

“In terms of quarantine, it is safest to continue high-intensity social distance, but it is not easy in reality, so we need to find a compromise,” said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters. 

Asking not telling

South Korea’s social distancing measures have relied more on public obedience measures than governmental enforcement. Koreans have taken to wearing masks – it is extremely rare to see an unmasked person in a public place – and hand sanitizer is ubiquitous in building entrances, stores and other businesses.

The country’s 600,000+ strong armed forces have been confined to bases and schools have been closed. The government has also recommended the closure of bars, clubs, amusement parks, gyms, private institutes and religious facilities. The latter is particularly sensitive as it was the Shincheonji Christian sect which was behind Korea’s biggest cluster of cases.

But guidelines have been lightly applied for there are few enforcement mechanisms. Churches came back this week – but with strong social distancing guidelines. And gyms, private educational institutes, cafes, restaurants and bars have remained open through the pandemic outbreak.

Seoul’s throbbing nightlife zones are more subdued than at any time in recent memory, as it is a downtown commercial and retail district. However, in the city’s myriad neighborhoods, shops and restaurants continue to do business, and the national addiction – coffee – continues to be satiated at busy cafes.  

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has led the country’s fight against the virus, keeps putting out warnings.

“If you want to go outside of your house and meet your friends, please think about our medical staff members who have been working on the front line to battle the virus,” KDCD Director Jung Eun-kyeong pleaded during a regular daily news briefing on  Monday.

As there have been incidences of people appearing in public without masks, Jung warned the public not to gather in large numbers. And as cases of reinfection appear in hospitals and nursing homes, the KCDC begged the public to remain vigilant, despite the dwindling number of cases.

Private sector experts are also sounding alarm bells.

Choi Seung-sik, a professor of public health sciences at Seoul National University, told Asia Times that there is a possibility of reinfection if the virus mutates in fall or winter.

“If this actually happens, it’s going to be a big obstacle to the development of treatments and vaccines that are currently being planned,” said Choi Seung-sik, a professor of public health sciences at Seoul National University.

“So it is necessary to keep social distancing and patients who were infected should comply with follow-up tests by hospitals when they are asked to do.”

Even so, “there is no inspection kit that has 100% accuracy,” he said, suggesting that more stringent standards should be applied when testing patients to confirm if they are positive.

Schools shut

Schools, however, remain shuttered.

South Korea followed the lead of Finland and kicked off nationwide online schooling of children in the 12th and 9th grades on April 9. The remaining grades began online classes on Tuesday this week. The process has not been without its flaws as some students failed to access related websites due to overloaded servers.

Some students said they were able to do other things during online classes, and some parents said it was difficult for particularly young children to take classes through certain online schooling platforms, forcing parents to take a hand in teaching.

“There would be many things that are difficult to do without the help of parents,” admitted Yoo Eun-hye, the Minister of Education, on Monday. “We will be sure to make up for the shortcomings of online classes as soon as possible.”

College gripes

Universities, which have been teaching online since the start of the spring semesters, are facing significant rumblings of discontent.

The Korean University Student Council Network held a press conference Tuesday in front of the government complex in central Seoul to demand a return of tuition fees and the preparation of economic measures for college students. The network said that 99.2% of 21,784 college students polled want their tuition fees repaid.

University officials and quarantine experts responded that “it is most desirable to proceed with online classes until the end of the semester, as face-to-face classes could lead to mass infections.”

Meanwhile, no compromise is apparent on the tuition fee issue.

Baseball returns

South Korea’s leading spectator sport is baseball and the 2020 season had been scheduled to open on March 28. That did not happen, but plans are now afoot for a late season-opening, with 144 games.

The board of directors of the Korea Baseball Organization, or KBO, confirmed on Monday that it would start its season on May 5, holding games, but without spectators. 

“It is too early to discuss the timing of spectators’ entrance,” said Ryu Dae-hwan, the general secretary of the KBO. “Despite the number of new confirmed cases decreasing, we can’t let our guard down.

“Once we believe that the threat of the virus has decreased a great deal, we plan to allow spectators to enter gradually, filling first 10%, and then 20% of [stadia] seats,” Ryu added.

Experts have raised concerns over the possibility of infections among players, coaches, staff and referees. “If any confirmed cases occur as a result of games, we will hold an emergency board meeting,” Ryu said.

However, since Taiwan’s baseball league started its season on April 11 and has suffered no confirmed infections so far, the KBO’s decision is likely to win public support.