An elderly woman walks past a poster depicting the coronavirus as a bomb to warn against Covid-19 at the City Hall in Seoul on December 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

SEOUL – The dangerously transmissible new strain of Covid-19, which emerged in the UK to global alarm, has made landfall in both Japan and South Korea, sparking drastic policy action in the former, but no changes in the latter.

The revelation is adding further woes to an un-merry year-end in the two Northeast Asia neighbors, which had, prior to November, both contained early waves of the virus with considerable success.

Partly due to those successes, neither country had prepared vaccination programs with the same alacrity as health authorities in hard-hit Western Europe and North America. As a result, neither nation is expected to deploy nationwide vaccination programs before March.

That is looking increasingly problematic as new cases have hit record highs in both countries in recent days. Japan suffered a record 3,881 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, while South Korea saw its own record for new cases broken on Christmas Day on Friday, with 1,216 infections.

New strain, new policies

On Sunday, Japanese health authorities said a Tokyo woman who had recently returned from the UK had the mutant variant of the virus, bringing the total infected with the strain in the country to eight, according to the Kyodo news agency.  

Two major policy steps were taken by Tokyo on Monday.

The country announced it was halting all incoming foreign travel until the end of January. Excluded from the ban will be visa-holding foreign residents of Japan, as well as business travelers from 10 countries, including China, South Korea and Taiwan, which have “travel bubbles” with Japan.

And in a step that had been signaled by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga earlier this month, the country’s controversial “GoTo” travel campaign – under which the government subsidizes half the costs of domestic travel – was suspended on Monday until January 11.

The scheme has been praised for offering welcome financial relief to tourism operators hammered by the 2020 Olympic postponement and the virtual halt to incoming foreign travelers. But it has also been critiqued for being a possible vector of infection.  

And in a country where both the national and local governments have, thus far, relied heavily upon the public following social distancing “requests” rather than orders, more powerful measures could be in the offing.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Monday that he plans to submit legislation that will make anti-pandemic measures legally binding for businesses, according to AP. Sticks and carrots will be part and parcel of the measures. There will both be the means to punish violators and to offer economic compensation for those who are affected.

New strain, old policies

Meanwhile, in South Korea on Monday, health authorities said three locals who arrived in the country from the UK last week were infected with the Covd-19 variant, according to the Yonhap news agency. The three had arrived before an emergency decree was passed last week, suspending the arrival of flights from the UK until the end of the year.

However, the government has not yet announced any new measures.

For the last two weeks, Seoul authorities have shied away from putting the nation under its highest social distancing measures, Level 3. While that measure falls short of the total lockdowns that other nations, regions and cities have mandated, authorities have resisted it on account of the damage it would do to millions of small business owners.

Even so, last Wednesday, Seoul banned meetings of more than four people in the capital area, home to half the national populace. That added heft to the Level 2.5 measures now in effect by essentially halting the tradition of boozy, year-end parties undertaken by companies, alumni associations and the like, that are a feature of the year-end season in normal years.

And the pressure is on to deploy the toughest possible measures. Related authorities will meet on January 3 to decide whether to implement Level 3.

While the nation had battled the first and second wave of the virus by effectively tracing and containing large clusters at churches, logistics centers, night clubs and the like, the difficulty of the country’s current, more dispersed anti-virus fight was made clear by the head of the national anti-Covid task force on Monday.

Noting that 25% of current infections over the last month were recorded within families, Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun called  – perhaps vainly –  to “refrain from any family-related gatherings or events.”

Better East than West

Both countries are in a state of semi crisis, but despite ongoing fear and constant warnings, neither nation has yet suffered an overload or breakdown in their national healthcare system.

Moreover, their caseloads and death rates still fall far, far short of those in North America and Western Europe.  

According to the tally maintained by data service Worldometer, Japan – despite being home to the world’s oldest populace – is 43rd worldwide for infections, while South Korea, widely praised for its widespread testing and high-tech tracing systems, is 87th.

Japan, (population: 126.5 million) has so far suffered 217,312 cases and 3,213 deaths, for a deaths-per-million of population ratio of 25.

South Korea (population: 51.6 million) has so far suffered 57,680 infections and 819 deaths, for a deaths-per-million of population ratio of only 16.

Comparably developed, prosperous democracies in the Western hemisphere continue to suffer massively higher tolls in all metrics.

The United States (population: 328.1 million) has had 19,573,847 cases and 341,148 deaths, for a deaths-per-million of population ratio of 1,028.

The United Kingdom (population: 66.6 million) has had 2,288,345 cases and 70,752 deaths, for a deaths-per-million of population ratio of 1,040.

Italy (population: 60.3 million) has had 2,047, 696 cases and 71,925 deaths, for a deaths-per-million of population ratio of 1,190.

Germany (population: 83.2 million) has had 1,655, 322 cases and 30,502 deaths, for a deaths-per-million of population ratio of 363.