People line up for free tests at a Covid-19 test facility outside Seoul's City Hall on January 23, 2022. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

SEOUL – South Korea’s daily Covid-19 infection rate approached 60,000 on Tuesday, the latest in a recent series of record highs, and strong indications late today are that the country is teetering on the brink of far higher caseloads.

The country registered 57,177 new cases on Tuesday,  the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced. It was the sixth day in a row that daily infections surpassed 50,000, according to Yonhap news agency.

Then, late on Tuesday evening, a preliminary “urgent” headline posted by news agency Yonhap found that the cases counted at the end of today – ie the figures that will be confirmed and announced Wednesday – totaled over 85,000.

Overseas watchers are taking note. On Monday, the US State Department raised its travel advisory rating for South Korea to “Level 4: Do Not Travel.”

Locally, apocalyptic models are being widely reported. Health authorities say new daily infections could hit 170,000 by the end of January, while the country’s National Institute of Mathematical Sciences warns the figure could soar as high as 360,000 in early March.

This is all a stunning turnaround for a nation that had, until the Omicron variant began its surge in late January, previously suffered record highs of less than 8,000 in December.

But despite the alarming numbers, the decoupling between high caseloads and severity of outcomes is now unmistakable, according to the data.

This places the government in a tricky position on Friday. That day it is scheduled to make a decision on whether to maintain, upgrade or downgrade national Covid restrictions.

And that decision must take into account a stark political landmark – on March 9, a pandemic-weary populace goes to the polls to vote in the country’s next president.

Rising cases, falling risks

Despite the stratospheric caseloads in this nation of 52 million, there were only 314 people critically ill with Covid-19 on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Omicron’s combination of transmissibility and mildness is thrusting the fatality rate from Covid-19 southwards, to only 0.49%.

And the population is well defended.

About 57.7% of South Koreans have had booster shots, while the number of fully vaccinated stands at 86.2% of the population. This week, South Korean authorities started administering fourth vaccination doses to those with weak immune systems, although there are, as yet, no plans to roll out a second booster shot for the general population.

When it comes to Covid containment tactics, South Korea, which for the first two years of the pandemic won widespread global praise for its high-tech tracing methodologies and widely available testing regimen, has shifted course.

PCR tests – which were until recently offered to all for free at stations set up in city centers – are now being restricted for those at special risk. The rest of the public is being encouraged to use self-test kits, though there has been a recent run on those.

In terms of treatment, people with mild or no symptoms are now being quarantined at home, with self-test kits and access to teleconsulting with doctors and nurses. Over 214,000 persons were being treated at home as of this weekend.

Covid restrictions include a 9pm curfew on businesses, mandatory mask-wearing both indoors and outdoors and the requirement for all incoming travelers to test before entry, test again after entry and quarantine for seven days regardless of the result.

A South Korean soldier receives the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital in Seongnam, south of Seoul. Photo: AFP / South Korean Defense Ministry

Tricky decisions

South Korea’s protocols contrast with an easing trend among well-vaccinated populations elsewhere in the world, notably in the EU. Now it is clear that Omicron does not generate mass deaths or overwhelm health systems, much of Europe is defying ongoing high caseloads and treating Covid-19 as an endemic rather than a pandemic.

Denmark and Sweden have already lifted all restrictions and the Channel Island of Guernsey will do the same this week. Ireland has ditched most of its restrictions, and multiple countries, including Norway and the UK, have dropped quarantine requirements for incoming visitors who are fully vaccinated.

Given the pain being suffered by the Mom ‘n Pop businesses that dominate South Korea’s food and beverage sector, the trends in local medical metrics and the situation elsewhere in the world, authorities could face some pushback if they tighten current protocols.

Indeed, there have already been demonstrations in Seoul against the restrictions, albeit small ones.

Friday’s decision comes at a time when the government has to keep an especially close eye on public sentiment. With the presidential election set for March 9, the latest polls find the opposition candidate is marginally ahead.   

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyun is hedging his bets.

“We will come up with a decision so as not to fuel the spread of the Omicron variant while also helping [small businesses] to ease the burden,” he said Monday.

Kim is due to speak to foreign correspondents next week, when the subject of South Korea’s Covid exit strategy will almost certainly arise.