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

SEOUL – Bad news is piling up for South Korea as Covid-19 daily infections hit a record high of 2,223 on Wednesday, defying a month of the toughest social distancing guidelines implemented yet in the country.

At the same time, vaccine suppliers are failing to consign promised shipments to the country and signs of economic damage are mounting a month before the country is due to enter its longest national holiday and end tax holidays for small and medium enterprises.

KDCA officials said a continuation of infections at the current pace could strain the country’s health care system, according to news agency reports.

South Korea has struggled since July to tame sporadic outbreaks that were at first concentrated largely in the capital Seoul but have since spread nationwide.

But the news is not all bad. Data shows that despite the record infection numbers, deaths from the disease are falling far below the mortalities recorded during the deadliest period of the pandemic in January.

Wednesday‘s record number of infections marked the first time the figure breached 2,000, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, or KDCA. South Korea’s daily caseload first exceeded 1,000 infections as recently as July 6 and has not dropped below that threshold since.

Moreover, the highly transmissible Delta variant is spreading fast: Of the 2,641 variant cases reported last week, 97% were Delta, the KDCA said.

It is a depressing state of affairs for a Covid-weary country that saw the world’s second major outbreak after China in February 2020.

While the country has so far not enacted a single lockdown, it implemented its toughest social distancing guidelines on July 12. With foreign vacations still a virtual no-no, the rules have severely hampered social gatherings during the summer holiday season.

Last year, South Korea appeared to have implemented a highly effective containment policy based on extensive testing and high-tech contact tracing.

However, the success of that formula, and a resultant lack of urgency, led to a slow vaccination drive. Now, even that sedate drive is hitting new speed bumps – albeit for reasons beyond South Korea’s control.

An empty marketplace street at Geumbit market in Geumsan Gun, South Korea on July 22. Restrictions are starting to hurt businesses. Photo: AFP / Seung-il Ryu / NurPhoto

Sluggish vaccinations

On Monday, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol apologized to the nation after a US pharmaceutical company said it would not be able to supply contracted amounts of vaccine to the country.

Moderna, citing production bottlenecks, apologized for being able to supply less than half its contracted shipment of 8.5 million doses for South Korea in August.

South Korea has contracted to acquire 40 million doses from Moderna, though only 2.4 million have arrived so far, according to the KDCA.

The development looks set to decelerate the country’s overall vaccination drive – already among the slowest in the developed world.

Forty-two percent of South Korea’s 52 million citizens have had one dose of a vaccine, but only 15.4% have been fully vaccinated. That means the world’s 10th largest economy falls below the global average of 15.7%, according to Our World In Data.

Meanwhile, according to the same data set, 19.2% of Russians have been fully vaccinated, as have 34.3% of Japanese, 35.5% of Turks, 50.8% of Americans, 55.2% of Germans,  59.3% of Britons and 62% of Canadians.

All this raises questions over South Korea’s oft-stated aim of reaching herd immunity by November.

Still, South Korea has prioritized vaccinations of vulnerable people – medical workers, the aged and those with high-risk health conditions. This, combined with ever-improving treatment protocols, appears to be having a positive impact of reducing death rates from the disease.

According to charts published by the Covid-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, South Korea’s worst day came amid the virus’ third wave on January 7, with 35 deaths and a seven-day rolling average of 23 mortalities.

In a stark contrast, yesterday’s seven-day average was four, while just one patient died..

Since the first Covid-19 case was reported on January 20, 2020, South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has suffered at total of 2,135 deaths.

Despite the social and economic havoc it has caused, Covid-19 is proving to be far less lethal to South Koreans than traditional respiratory diseases.

According to the WHO and www.worldlifeexpectancy.com, in 2018, South Korea had 18,632 influenza- and pneumonia-related deaths.

And according to a paper published in The American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the average number of annual deaths in South Korea from influenza alone between 2003 and 2013 was 2,900.

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

Economic warning signs

In the face of related data streams and analyses, the question now is which way Seoul will move with its Covid-19 policies.

Will it maintain – or upgrade – current social distancing restrictions in an attempt to keep infection numbers at a manageable level? Or will it consider easing these, given the apparently low mortality risks?

Some economic red lights are already flashing.

South Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 0.7% quarter-on-quarter in the second quarter – a slowdown from a 1.7% rise in this year’s first quarter.

South Korea reported job additions for the fifth straight month in July, Yonhap News reported on Wednesday – but the rate of growth is slowing. In July, the country added 542,000 jobs year-on-year – a slowdown from June when the figure was 582,000.

While exports and the quarterly results of blue chips like Samsung remain robust, the domestic face-to-face service sector is taking a hammering from the pandemic.

Social distancing measures that have been in place since July 12 include restrictions on restaurants and cafes that only allow for serving tables of two after 6pm and closing by 10pm. Bars and clubs are shuttered and indoor sports facilities face a broad range of restrictions.

Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said Wednesday that the third quarter’s performance will be critical if the economy is to achieve its 2021 growth target of 4.2%.