The heart of the Seoul nightlife zone of Itaewon looks forlorn as clubs are closed in the wake of a recent cluster of Covid-19 infections. Photo: AFP

A new cluster of 86 infections ignited in a Seoul nightclub is casting a shadow over South Korea, one of the nations that had been widely credited for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic only days after it cautiously exited months of social distancing.

South Korea did not enact any citywide or national lockdowns, but as of May 6 the government lifted the modest behavioral restrictions that were in place.

As of Monday, and in the wake of the new cluster, plans to re-open schools on Wednesday were being questioned.

Disclosure anxiety

The recent cluster centers around an unnamed man who visited Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul noted for its multicultural populace and vibrant nightlife on the night of May 1-2. Complicating the contact tracing was the fact that three of the nightclubs the man visited were gay clubs.

In a society where considerable prejudice still exists toward sexual minorities, this may be a factor preventing many of the 5,517 people who Seoul City Hall believes could have been in contact with the patient at the clubs coming forward and being tested.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Monday those who did not want to reveal their personal information could take tests at public health centers anonymously. But Park also said that, as of Monday morning, 3,112 of the 5,517 people in the clubs had not been contacted.

In the wake of the cluster, the governments of Seoul, Incheon – the port and airport city serving the capital – and Gyeonggi, the province surrounding Seoul and Incheon – have ordered clubs and entertainment facilities to suspend operations for two weeks.

Now what?

“The case that occurred last week is what experts have predicted,” said Roh Kyung-ho, a professor of Laboratory Medicine at the National Health Insurance Service Ilsan Hospital. “People have to always keep in mind that this battle will not over until a vaccine or treatments are developed.”

Roh expected a debate on postponing the planned opening of schools this week, but said the government would probably not consider tightening business activity. 

High school seniors were expecting to go back to school as part of a phased re-opening set to start this Wednesday, but there is already opposition. There has been criticism online from children saying it is too risky to return to school and officialdom has now weighed in.

In a statement put out on Monday, Joe Hee-yeon, superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, said it was necessary to postpone the re-opening of schools for one week. “Our children should be protected in the rear, not in the front line of quarantine,” the statement said.

The national government is expected to make a decision on the issue late Monday or early Tuesday.

Whose responsibility?

Reflecting on last week’s easing measures, which Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun admitted had taken into consideration public pressure to return to economic normality, medical professionals warned that the country had let its guard down too soon.

“It can be remembered as the day when politics ruined quarantine,” Lee Jae-kab, a professor at Hallym University Medical Center’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said in a radio interview after the government’s announcement on May 3. 

But others said the time had come for the public, rather than the government, to assume responsibility.

“There is nothing the government can do if we complain that the government has been loosening the quarantine guidelines,” Hwang Seung-sik, a professor of Public Health Sciences at Seoul National University. “Until a vaccine and treatments are developed, people should take care under the guidelines the government has been wanting them to follow.”

On the anniversary of his assumption of power three years ago, President Moon Jae-in talked up the positives of his government’s widely praised containment strategy in a press briefing on Monday.

“South Korea’s disinfecting process has become the world standard and our national pride and status has risen more than ever,” he said.

However, Moon also warned Koreans to remain vigilant.

“Although we are in the stabilization stage, mass infections can occur anytime, anywhere,” he said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”