South Korea's economic outlook for the year is bright and shiny. Photo: Tom Coyner

Seoul is again toughening its social distancing guidelines in response to the new virus surge.

More than 300 new cases in South Korea were recorded daily in the six days before Monday.

It was hardly a disaster by international standards as Covid-19 renews its storm across Asia but was enough to give the vapors to a country which has so far managed the pandemic successfully.

New infections fell below 300 on Monday but they are expected to rise imminently as the number of tests usually drops on weekends.

“The third wave of the pandemic is under way due to the silent spread of the virus in our daily lives, leading to over 2,000 additional cases in a week,” Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae said, according to Yonhap news agency.

“If we fail to break the chain of infections, antivirus measures and medical efforts will not be sustainable.”

A range of restrictions are about to descend.

Among them, to the discontent of capital area restaurateurs and club owners – and many patrons of those establishments, Asia Times’ correspondent included – early closures and shutdowns begin for two weeks, starting Tuesday.

Yet with the importance of those guidelines being well communicated and understood, there is no significant legislative or public push back: No angry questions are being asked in parliament, nor are protesters pouring out on to streets.

The owner of an establishment that will be severely impacted was resigned.

“For me, but not only for me, it has been dragging on so long, Jae Lee, owner of the King Club, a landmark nightclub in Seoul’s Itaewon district, told Asia Times.

“For all the owners, we are kind of ‘whatever, we’ll just wait for a vaccine.’”

Nightmare scenario

Acceptance of the measures is particularly strong given public awareness of the perils that a viral surge in the densely and massively populated greater Seoul area would generate.

Korea’s first and biggest outbreak took place in and around the southeastern city of Daegu, home to 2.4 million.

However, the greater Seoul area – a mega-conurbation that includes the port/airport city of Incheon, several dormitory towns and the electronics manufacturing hub of Suwon, as well as the capital itself – is home to half the country’s 52 million people.

An out-of-control outbreak amid such a dense population would be an apocalyptic scenario. That it has not yet eventuated may be put down South Korea’s effective public health responses, which represent global benchmarks.

But Seoul has not been effective just in terms of its widely reported “hardware” policies – testing and tracing mechanisms. It has also been effective due to the less-noted “software” side of its crisis response, notably, the adoption of gradated social distancing guidelines.

Authorities are flexible in adopting and rescinding these guidelines as the situation demands.

The measures set to take effect from Tuesday are similar to guidelines imposed from August 30. These were dropped on September 13, after they took effect and caseloads fell.

Testing, tracing, social distancing

South Korea, which was the first country after China to succumb to a major Covid-19 outbreak has, according to Worldmeters, suffered just 31,004 infections and 509 deaths  – or just 10 deaths per million of population.

Remarkably, it has done so without any local or national lockdowns. As a result, its response model is well known worldwide, most particularly its two standout elements.

The first is a widely available mass testing regimen. At easy-to-use, walk-through and drive-through facilities, Covid-19 tests are provided free for those who test positive.

The second is its AI-driven contact tracing, which synchronizes the databases of police CCTV cameras, mobile phone operators, public transport providers and the Customs service.

What is less well known is its 5-level social distancing system.

This system enables authorities, local and national, to raise or lower social distancing guidelines as required: Up the ladder when infections are increasing, down as caseloads fall.

The capital area guidelines had been raised from Level 1 to Level 1.5 three days prior. As of Tuesday, it shifts up to Level 2.

Under Level 2, school attendance is capped at one-third of students in kindergartens, primary schools and middle schools, and at two-thirds in high schools. The remainder attend online classes.

A maximum of two thirds of civil servant are allowed to work in offices. The rest must work from home, and all gatherings involving 100 or more people are banned. Public facilities must not exceed an admissions ceiling of 30% and sports events have to cut spectators to a   maximum of 10%.

Restaurants are allowed to serve only until 9PM. After that, only takeout and delivery is permitted. Coffee shops – ubiquitous in this city of caffeine addicts – are only allowed to serve take outs, day long.

Indoor sports facilities such as gyms, martial art schools and billiard clubs must close after 9PM. Nightclubs and karaokes must suspend operations.

Cause and effect

Many pundits have put the efficacy of the Korean response down to cultural factors. Mask wearing has been the norm since early in the pandemic, well before it was mandated and non-compliance resulted in on-the-spot fines of 100,000 won ($90).

But Ogan Gurel, an American non-practicing physician and university professor in Korea, suggests that communication and consistency must also be taken into account.

“In the US, some component of the lack of compliance is, I think, attributed to federal  fragmentation and lack of communications,” he told Asia Times.  “Whereas in Korea it may not be a cultural issue. It may be clarity of communications, and while steps are rolled out regionally, there is consistency.”

Gurel also praised the speed and flexibility that the systemized Korean response enables.

“I think an underappreciated factor in this is time, and the Korean government acts very quickly at all levels. There is no dilly dallying,” he said. “If you act quickly, you can be less rigid. If you dilly dally you have got to be draconian.”

What is clear, is that even in Korea – a benchmark for pandemic management – the economic carnage is gruesome. The related question is what determines survival for impacted businesses.

Lee, the nightclub owner is hopeful that life will return eventually, even to the stricken Itaewon.

“I think there are enough young people willing to go out and that won’t change,” he said. “So whenever a vaccine comes everything will go back to normal – in six months or one year, I don’t know.”

But how many businesses will survive is another matter.

“Just in Itaewon I think 50% of businesses have closed down, because so many people don’t have enough money to survive,” Lee said. “Every day I walk the street and ‘this is closed, this is closed.’ Nobody is happy to see this.”