A masked medical worker in Seoul where infections are spiking but deaths are dropping. Photo: AFP / Ed Jones

SEOUL – South Korea is holding its breath to see what Tuesday’s Covid-19 caseload will bring as the country teeters on the brink of imposing its most stringent social distancing measures ever.

The country has been touted as a model for non-lockdown pandemic containment measures and it was all systems go on Monday as President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun separately spoke about crisis countermeasures.

Moon’s popularity has been falling coincident with the rising caseload.

According to a Realmeter poll published on Monday, Moon’s approval rating was 36.7%. In May, after South Korea had c0ntained the first wave of the virus, it had stood at 71%.

Hundreds of troops – doctors, nurses and even special forces – were deployed on Monday to assist health officials in 150 specialized testing stations that have been established around the Seoul capital area.

The number of new cases recorded on Monday was 718, but that number is widely believed to be low as testing usually drops over the weekend. Over the previous two days, the country had seen consecutive record daily highs. 

A medical worker takes test samples for Covid-19 from a South Korean police officer at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s headquarters in Seoul on August 19, 2020. Photo: AFP

On Sunday, South Korea reported a record daily caseload of 1,030 new coronavirus cases, breaking the record set the day before of 950 cases. Up until this weekend, the record high had been 909 new cases.

That record had been set in the first wave of infections in February. And as recently as October, daily caseloads had been in the double digits.

But as the cold weather rolls in, the numbers in South Korea have been rising, as they have across much of the world. The average number of new Covid-19 cases last week was 662, well north of the prior week’s 487.7.

A mass outbreak in the densely and heavily populated greater Seoul area, home to half of South Korea’s 52 million population, is the nightmare scenario. On Monday, of 718 nationally reported cases, there were 474 infections in the capital area, which is now under Level 2.5 social distancing guidelines, the second-highest level.

Seoul City Hall said Monday it would open 18 more residential treatment centers in the city this week, with 1,577 additional beds for patients with mild symptoms. Five centers, with 659 beds, opened Sunday and a further 13 will open over the coming weekend.

The question on everyone’s lips is whether the capital area goes to the highest tier of social distancing – Level 3 – in the days ahead.

A medical staff member wearing protective gear takes a swab from a woman to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a temporary testing station outside Seoul station in Seoul on December 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Level 3 can be instituted if there are three consecutive days of 800-1,000 cases, or if the caseload doubles over the previous day. It would represent the closest thing to a lockdown South Korea has instituted since the start of the pandemic.

Under it, gatherings of 10 or more people are banned, all schools are shut and all sports events are halted. Moreover, trains and express buses can only run at half capacity, the populace is advised to stay home and companies are mandated to have nonessential employees work from home.

Still, Level 3 does not quite mark the limits of government authority to restrict public activities. Extra ad hoc measures could be authorized.

“When we decide to adopt Level 3, we will also review stronger antivirus measures that can be added to what is already in the manual,” Son Young-rae, a health ministry spokesman, said on Sunday.

So far, South Korea has handled the pandemic with subsidized mass testing, extensive, high-tech contact tracing and a reliance on the good sense of the public to keep personally clean, masked up and socially distanced.

And Prime Minister Chung, who heads the national Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, remains wary about pulling the trigger on Level 3.

Speaking at Seoul’s City Hall on Monday, Chung called it “the last resort” and said its implementation requires “cautious deliberation, as it calls for confidence and social consensus on its effectiveness.”

President Moon, speaking on Monday with his aides, said separately: “Providing small and medium-sized businesses and self-employed people with support is especially urgent.”

He also called for the front-loading of relevant budgetary spending to create more than one million “emergency jobs” in the public sector in 2021.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in talking on the phone on September 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/Handout/The Blue House

In recent months, Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea has failed to contain soaring real estate prices in the capital and his Justice Minister has lost the latest round of a fierce, long-lasting and high-profile battle with the nation’s chief prosecutor.

A political showdown is expected with the right-wing People’s Power Party in April, when by-elections, including that for Seoul’s mayor, are contested.

South Korea is still in the process of negotiating deals with three separate vaccine providers. It expects to begin vaccination programs in March.