A health worker administers a swab at a temporary Covid-19 novel coronavirus testing centre in Bucheon, south of Seoul, on May 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones

In South Korea, a country which thought it had largely mastered the novel coronavirus pandemic, the clock is taking an unwelcome backward turn. As it grapples with surprise Covid-19 clusters emerging nationwide, Seoul is re-imposing social distancing restrictions that had been cautiously lifted early this month.

South Korea registered 79 new cases on Thursday – the highest number of daily infections since April 5. So far, there have been 11,344 infections in the country, with 269 dead, according to the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the dreaded “second wave” has not appeared, a cluster that ignited in the nightlife zone of Itaewon has so far registered more than 260 infections, while a new cluster in a distribution center just outside Seoul has seen cases exceed 80.

It is not known whether the current problems will impact plans to reopen all school classes by June 8, or a nationwide shopping festival planned for next month that is designed to help small retailers and markets which have suffered from plummeting consumption during the pandemic.

The Coupang cluster

As of midday on Thursday, 82 cases had emerged from a cluster found early this week at a logistics center operated by Coupang, a tech “unicorn” that is Korea’s leading online distribution firm.

The center is in Bucheon, a dormitory town southwest of Seoul. Many of the infected are reportedly based not only in Bucheon, but also Incheon, the port and airport city serving Seoul, and the capital itself.

South Korean authorities have repeatedly warned the public not to drop their guard, and failures to follow social distancing guidelines may be behind the latest outbreak.

“It looks like preventive measures against the epidemic by employees at the facility, such as wearing masks or taking a break [from work] if they are sick, have not been properly carried out,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said, according to Yonhap news agency,

The company, which has shut down the distribution center in Bucheon and another center in the satellite city of Goyang, northwest of Seoul, said it was awaiting results of ongoing government audits before responding to the allegations.

“Since closing the center, we are fully cooperating with the authorities and are opening our information and are checking we have done everything okay,” Kim Sue-hae, a Coupang spokesperson, told Asia Times. “We are waiting for the results of the investigation. Until then, please forgive us for not giving further details.”

So far, four Coupang facilities have been checked by authorities with no issues arising, Kim said, although she declined to disclose how many centers the company maintains.

While Coupang is striving to maintain its “rocket deliveries” amid the crisis, it is also taking “enhanced disinfection measures nationwide,” Kim said.

Not over yet

The Coupang cluster is the second blow in a one-two punch to South Korea, which had relaxed its already genteel social distancing guidelines on May 6 and announced “everyday life quarantine.”

The country, which did not enforce any lockdowns, has received widespread global praise for its anti-pandemic measures, notably widespread testing and aggressive contact tracing. It also successfully overcame a potentially catastrophic outbreak that peaked in February and March, largely in the southeastern city of Daegu.

The new cluster at the distribution center comes after a cluster that originated in gay clubs in the Seoul nightlife zone of Itaewon early this month and spread nationwide. About 261 infections nationwide have been linked to the Itaewon cluster so far.

Seven infections have been traced to a life insurance call center in Jung-gu, central Seoul.

Turning the clock back

With cases rising, authorities announced the re-imposition of some social distancing measures that had been rescinded in the first week of May.

For the next two weeks, public facilities, including museums, galleries and parks in the greater Seoul area – a massive urban area that is home to approximately half the country’s 51 million citizens – will be shut down, while companies are being urged to adopt, or re-adopt, flexible working systems.

Moreover, bars and clubs in the area were “strongly advised” to close down over the period, said Health Minister Park.

School re-openings – which had commenced with two separate phases over the last two Wednesdays, with a third phase set for next Wednesday – have also been impacted by the recent rise in infections.

As of Thursday morning, Incheon suspended the reopening of 243 schools and kindergartens, while all 251 schools in Bucheon were ordered to close, bar ongoing high-school seniors’ classes.

Nationwide, about 800 schools nationwide have either closed or delayed their re-openings, according to TV news reports.

Under current plans, all students are expected to return to school by June 8. In the second half of June, a nationwide shopping festival is planned to reinvigorate the local economy, with the government providing coupons for use at traditional markets and small retailers.