SEOUL – In good news for a pandemic-fatigued population and for a government that faces an election in the spring, all indicators in South Korea’s Covid-19 situation room are looking positive.
As of Thursday, infections have been south of the 2,000 level for the sixth straight day, the national inoculation drive is now advanced enough that Seoul is donating vaccines to neighboring countries and the country’s pandemic czar is talking about a return to normalcy to start next month.
President Moon Jae-in looks set to leave office after next March’s election with arguably the most mission-critical promise of his administration – that South Korea would reach herd immunity by November – delivered.
That could provide a winning card for his Democratic Party of Korea as contenders limber up for the presidential race in Spring 2022.
The country of nearly 52 million has been seeing daily infections in quadruple figures since July and saw a daily record on September 24 with 3,270 cases. However, the fall of infection rates below the psychologically important 2,000 level is notable and there is no indication the medical sector faces overload.
With tests still being widely encouraged and conducted, this manageable number is likely down to an accelerated vaccination drive.
Although South Korea’s vaccination program started late and suffered a number of supply chain-related hiccups that raised questions about the November deadline, the uptick in inoculations appears to be taking effect.
According to the Our World in Data, 77.5% of South Koreans have received their first shots, while 60.3 % are fully vaccinated. That compares with 35.7% of the global population with at least one dose, and 12.27% who are fully vaccinated, according to the same data source.
This means South Korea has now overtaken the US, with 66% of citizens partially and 57% fully vaccinated, and is closing in on highly vaccinated nations. These include the UK, with 73.2% partially vaccinated and 67.2% fully vaccinated, France with 75.2% and 67% respectively and Canada with 72.4% and 77.4%.
On Tuesday, the first set of booster shots were administered in a plan to offer another jab to about 45,000 high-risk medical workers who were fully vaccinated six months ago in the country’s first round of inoculations.
Moreover, Seoul is now comfortable enough with the situation to offer vaccines to other countries in the region. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry announced that South Korea was shipping 1.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Vietnam and 470,000 doses to Thailand.
And perhaps most importantly for the average South Korean, the country is preparing to move out of pandemic containment and into a living-with-the-virus mode – known locally as “with Corona.”
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, the government’s point man on the pandemic, raised Wednesday the possibility of a “return to normalcy” from November 9. As part of this scheme, the country would “review measures like a vaccine pass,” he said.
The latter tactic should not be a stretch in South Korea.
Firstly, the country has efficiently deployed personal technologies during the pandemic. For example, a government app means all citizens can display their vaccination status on their smartphones, and leading messaging service Kakao and internet portal Naver are both supplying QR codes which are used by citizens to record their entries to facilities such as cafes and restaurants.
Secondly, the kind of politicized pushback against mask-wearing, vaccinations and vaccine passports that have roiled some countries in the West have barely raised their heads in South Korea.
On Wednesday, Kim chaired the first meeting of a new public-private sector committee comprising eight government officials and 30 experts. The committee will, according to Yonhap news agency, “discuss ways to carry out the envisioned transition in the economic, education, security, coronavirus control and quarantine” areas.
Remarkably this nation, which suffered the second major outbreak of the novel coronavirus after China, has lost only 2,618 dead to Covid-19, according to the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency. And it managed the crisis with a prudent response that did not include a single national, or even city-level, lockdown.
Even so, the months of restrictions have become irksome – particularly for small owner-operated businesses in sectors like food and beverage, education and sports or fitness.
Under current social distancing guidelines, masks are mandatory both indoors and out. In Seoul, a city known for its work-late, play-late lifestyle, virtually all businesses – restaurants, cafes, educational institutes, theaters and gyms must close their doors by 10pm.
There are restrictions on the numbers of diners who can sit at a table and caps on the numbers who can attend religious services, weddings, funerals and sporting events.