Covid-19 test kits are checked before shipment at the SD Biosensor bio-diagnostic company south of Seoul. Photo: AFP / Ed Jones

Seoul officials say they have no plans to ease quarantine for incoming travelers and remain conflicted on restarting spectator sports as they lay out their next steps in the battle against Covid-19.

But travel and sport are just the tip of the iceberg. Though government officials were upbeat on the risk of a much-feared second wave, they made clear that they are not expecting a vaccination program until next year at the earliest.

Senior officials spoke on Friday to share their experiences six months into the Covid-19 crisis. South Korea has been widely praised globally for its crisis response on technical grounds and for its principles.

In technical terms, it has pioneered mass testing and has been at the leading edge of high-tech contact tracing using integrated databases to track infected individuals’ routes and contacts via mobile phone location data, credit card payment records, public transport use and CCTV footage.

These tactics have been implemented on the basis of transparency, responsiveness and democracy – such as by refusing to institute lockdowns, minimizing damage to the economy and to society.

South Korea’s 10 tips

Kwon Jun-wook, the director-general of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the chief government body that has led the national response, laid out 10 key metrics behind South Korea’s successful virus control. They are:

  • Effective management of imported cases with special entry and post-entry procedures.
  • Effective isolation and treatment of the infected.
  • Early actions to develop diagnostic tools and expand testing.
  • Thorough contact tracing and disclosure of relevant information.
  • Systemic testing nationwide.
  • The establishment of a public mask-supply system.
  • Implementation of guidelines for public behavior.
  • Hard work and dedication by healthcare workers.
  • Governance that promotes cooperation and sustainability, with daily TV-broadcast briefings by the KCDC and meetings led by the prime minister.
  • Cooperation and solidarity between different groups, notably government and public, and industry and academia.

For those seeking a magic bullet, Kwon had nothing to offer. “There is no secret weapon in the fight against Covid-19,” he said.

“The only way for humanity to move forward is to change and adapt our practices to the new reality,” he said. Mask wearing and personal hygiene had to become essential elements in daily life.

New normal

At the heart of Korea’s strategy are public behavior guidelines, set by government. There are three phases: “Intensive social distancing, social distancing and distancing in daily life.”

The latter, which is now applied, is the loosest of the three. It is based on strict criteria. Fewer than 50 new cases per day over a month, a manageable number of nationwide clusters that do not strain medical facilities and a less than a 5% unidentified transmission route.

Under this regimen, the public are asked to wear masks – which are mandatory on public transport – keep a 1-2 meter distance, stay home if they feel ill, wash hands frequently for over 30 seconds and cover nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing.

Meanwhile, QR codes are mandated for entry to high-risk facilities such as bars, karaoke rooms, nightclubs, gymnasiums with group classes, logistics centers and buffets.

As a result the national curve has been kept flat, and medical facilities have not been over-stressed. A national election was held in April and schools nationwide re-opened in May and June. Health Ministry spokesman said these outcomes have “kept things in harmony.” 

He emphasised the wearing of masks as a simple but critical preventative tool.

“There was a confirmed patient who went to a church four times and there were 8,000 people at the church, but we tested all 8,000 people and not a single confirmed case came out,” Son said. The worshippers had refrained from singing loudly and all had worn masks.

Travel and sports

Early in the pandemic, South Korea mandated that all incoming travelers download an app that enables them to report their state of health daily for 14 days.

The country requires all incoming travelers to move directly to a 14-day quarantine at home if they are locals or in a government-run facility, paying about $100 a night, for foreigners.

This is a major disincentive to travel to South Korea and a hammer blow to airlines, hotels, conference organizers and other businesses that rely on the country’s growing number of foreign visitors. No changes are expected in the near future, Kwon said.

However, new testing protocols could enable the quarantine period to be reduced to three days though these protocols are still in their early, test phase.

Though bars, nightclubs and karaoke rooms remain in operation and sports leagues have resumed activities, teams are playing to empty stadiums. This is not going to change any time soon.

Given that museums are closed while bars and nightclubs are open – albeit, with strict guidelines, such as the requirement that visitors log into the facilities manually 0r with a smartphone QR code – Son admitted there are conflicts in the approach.

But he warned that sports stadiums represent particularly high risks due to the scale of crowds, as well as their pre- and after-sport activities.

Noting that Seoul’s Jamsil Stadium holds 30,000 people, he said this could be cut to 10% or 20% capacity, but there is the added danger of people gathering before the event than meeting to party afterwards.

Now, with the country’s infection numbers on a downward track, he said discussions are continuing. “The risks are going down and we are talking with leagues about allowing fans back to stadiums,” he said. This might be with greatly reduced crowds and no food or drinks sold.

However, there are few models to follow. “This is a first for the government, we are working on a blank sheet. Some trial and error is inevitable,” Son said. “We have a calculated approach to risk.”

Vaccine and second wave

Kwon said he was hopeful about a vaccine, given the fast track being pursued by institutions, companies and governments around the world. However, Seoul is prioritizing safety and allowing for full-scale testing before a vaccine is introduced to the public.

The likelihood is that a vaccine would require three injections over a month, raising issues of scale of production and the cost of stockpiling supplies. He said Seoul was in open discussions with international institutions and closed-door talks with vaccine developers.

He said the Korean government will buy all stocks of any South Korean-made vaccine that emerges from a successful three-stage clinical trial, so easing concerns over research costs.

However, he did not expect any vaccine to be successfully tested and deployed on a national scale this year.

Regarding the inevitability of a second wave – a subject of fevered discussion in some quarters – Kwon considered it “not a reasonable prediction.”

 “We have gone through a learning curve, I don’t think a resurgence will be worse than before,” he said. “I think that applies not only to Korea, but other countries, too. They have experience now and will be able to cope much better.”

Son agreed. “I am not sure how reasonable the predictions are,” he said. Even so, he said Seoul is preparing for a worst-case scenario, for example by making resources, including hospital bed and drug stockpiles, available.

He said an extension of the current situation is more likely than a future, explosive surge.

“The government is more focused on this situation prolonging,” he said. “We may have to cope with this for another year, so we are focusing on how to resume normal life and economic activities despite the risk of Covid-19.”