Seoul's multiple nightlife districts are uncommonly quiet, leading frustrated drinkers to go underground and relocate to parks to beat a 10pm curfew. Photo: AFP / Jong Hyun Kim / Anadolu Agency

SEOUL – South Korea on Wednesday recorded its highest daily number of Covid-19 infections since December, prompting a warning from President Moon Jae-in and action from authorities.

The tally reported on Wednesday morning for the previous 24 hours was 1,212 cases, way up from 746 on Tuesday, 711 on Monday and 743 on Sunday. It was the highest daily number since 1,240 cases on Christmas Day 2020, when the country was battling the “third wave” of the virus.

Moon, speaking after health authorities’ announcement of the high daily caseload, ordered increased tracing efforts, the establishment of temporary testing centers in areas with many visitors as well as the mobilization of military, police and civil service personnel.

He also called for zero tolerance toward those who violate social distancing guidelines and “pre-emptive testing” in high-risk facilities patronized by South Koreans in their 20s-30s.

Here we go again

For citizens of a country that received widespread kudos for the efficacy of its high-tech, no-lockdown containment strategy, the viral resurgence was a cruel blow.

South Korea had mastered a third wave of the novel coronavirus during the winter holiday. Now a fourth wave appears to be approaching just as temperatures rise and the summer vacation season – with its promise of visits to the country’s many beaches, mountains and resorts – is imminent.

Meanwhile, better vaccinated populations in North America and Western Europe have been defying rising caseloads and making merry – such as at the ongoing UEFA European Football Championships.

Making matters worse, salvation had recently appeared to be at hand.

South Korean health authorities had, only weeks earlier, announced the easing of social distancing guidelines – a step that would have extended opening hours from 10pm to midnight and allowed more than four people to gather socially.

However, the step was delayed two weeks ago for a week, and was extended again on Wednesday for a further week. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said stricter rules could be implemented if cases show no signs of abating in 2-3 days.

Also Wednesday – to counter an apparent trend – Seoul City banned drinking in riverside parks between 10pm and 5am. Violators face a fine of 100,000 won (US$88).

There was also talk of reducing public transport services after 10pm to encourage revelers to return home earlier.

South Korean soldiers after receiving the first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital in Seongnam, south of Seoul. Photo: AFP / South Korean Defence Ministry

Social distancing pushback

South Korea’s late-to-the-party vaccination drive has accelerated over the last few weeks. As of Tuesday, 15.4 million people, or 30% of the population, had received at least one vaccine dose, while 5.32 million were fully vaccinated – 10.5% of the population.

Even so, the under-60s are not yet being jabbed and most new cases are among those in their 20s and 30s.

More than 80% of infections were occurring in the mega-city of Seoul and its surrounding province, home to half of South Korea’s 51 million-strong populace.

A mass outbreak in this densely-inhabited conurbation has long been authorities’ nightmare.

Still, within the capital masks remain mandatory and are almost entirely ubiquitous in public. In Seoul’s central business district, groups of more than four in restaurants and cafes are banned. Moreover, the city’s 24-7 nightlife zones have gone quiet.

Yet multiples signs suggest that South Koreans have, of late, been letting down their Covid guards.

Some 8,000 members of an umbrella labor union defied police orders and held a mass rally in central Seoul on Saturday, demanding better working conditions.

With bars closed at 10pm, young people have reportedly been flocking to parks and other open-air areas to drink and socialize in the evenings.  

Concerned residents in nightlife areas have noted a slackening off of cautious habits, such as personal distancing and mask-wearing, in pubs, which were starting to see crowds return.

Moreover, some bars had become after-hours “speakeasies,” quenching the late-night thirsts of regular or trusted patrons.

To disguise the fact that they are open past the 10pm curfew, these establishments bolted their doors and covered their windows. They also accepted payments in cash only, rather than via credit cards, Asia Times has learned.

A predictable rise

Against this backdrop, one expert said he was not surprised at the recent rise in caseloads.

“There has been a resurgence of cases in much more vaccinated counties, so my thought was that if cases do build up, Korea would be vulnerable,” said Ogan Gurel, a non-practicing American physician who has been monitoring South Korea’s pandemic since its outset.

“One of the strengths of Korea is a very strong group sentiment, and Korea was able to control Covid well as people were complying and working together,” Gurel, who is the author of the scientific thriller Waves, told Asia Times. “What I noticed in the past weeks is that there has been this relaxation, which may have been motivated by suggestions of changing guidelines.”

A visitor uses a rapid self-test kit for the Covid-19 coronavirus test before entering a music festival at Olympic Park in Seoul on June 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Still, Gurel was not convinced the country was teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

“If you relax, it is like clockwork. Numbers go up, it is almost a mathematical certainty,” he said. “But everything in life is waves – what goes up, must come down, and numbers will come down. The issue is how they will come down.”

Regardless of Wednesday’s figures, the country’s overall numbers look positive compared with most of its peers. It has so far recorded a total of 162,753 cases and 2,033 deaths.

The highly infectious Delta variant now accounts for approximately 7% of all cases overall, according to Korea’s Central Disease Control Headquarters.