World watches as South Korea cautiously returns to life

World watches as South Korea cautiously returns to life

Thursday, May 28, 2020

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The baseball league is on. Students have begun returning to school. And people are increasingly dining out and enjoying night-time strolls in public parks.

As South Korea significantly relaxes its rigid social distancing rules as a result of waning coronavirus cases, the world is paying close attention to whether it can return to something that resembles normal — or face a virus resurgence.

Already, a mini-outbreak linked to nightclubs in Seoul has tested South Korea's widely praised method for dealing with the disease — essentially a combination of rapid tracing, testing and treatment, along with stringent social distancing practices.

“Other countries must be wondering whether our nation will continue to make good progress,” said Jin Yong Kim, a doctor at Incheon Medical Center near Seoul who confirmed South Korea's first patient on January 20 and has since treated more than 100 others.

“But I can't predict with authority what will happen here from now on.”

South Korea once had the world's largest number of coronavirus cases outside mainland China, but its daily caseload has since dropped to around 10-30 and occasionally has hit single digits in recent weeks.

South Korea yesterday still reported 40 new cases, its biggest daily jump in about 50 days.

The recent uptick in fresh infections linked to nightclubs in Seoul's Itaewon entertainment district has raised fears of another big outbreak.

Since the first patient was associated with a nightclub on May 6 — the same day social distancing policy was officially eased — South Korea has confirmed more than 250 related cases.

It's unclear how things will play out, but so far the outbreak hasn't grown, unlike what happened in late February and early March when hundreds of new patients were reported each day, many of them tied to a controversial church gathering in the country's south-east.

The tried and tested methods of aggressive tracing, testing and treatment and the widespread public use of masks again played a major role in preventing the outbreak in Itaewon from exploding, said Hyukmin Lee, a professor at Yonsei University of College of Medicine in Seoul.

South Korean officials previously said their nation was approaching its economic and social limits.

But Lee said the Government now has to think about whether it can tolerate small outbreaks and let the economy operate smoothly, or if it should restore strict social distancing rules.

Meanwhile, daily life — of a sort — has resumed. Long-delayed baseball and soccer seasons began without fans in the stands. Public parks, museums and outdoor leisure facilities have reopened.

High school seniors returned to class last week, and younger students will do the same in phases by June 8. These days, during lunchtime, restaurants in downtown Seoul are crowded with office workers, and many have stopped working from home.

During evening rush hours, subways are packed with commuters wearing masks. At night, in a park in western Seoul, it's easy to find young couples strolling without masks.

South Korea's quarantine campaign is often compared with that of the US, UK and Italy, some of the hardest-hit countries.

They all noticed their first cases in late January. South Korea launched widespread testing fairly early, and in early February it had open public testing, which was available to asymptomatic people, and pursued contact tracing for all confirmed patients.

Italy's testing increased much more slowly. In the case of the UK, despite its early head start on testing, there were signs that it wasn't able to keep up with the outbreak.

Testing in the United States began in earnest in mid-March, according to a recent analysis in Our World in Data, a non-profit online scientific publication based at the University of Oxford.

Of the 5.6 million people infected worldwide, the United States tops the list with about 1.6 million while both the UK and Italy have more than 230,000 cases, respectively.

South Korea has recorded a total of 11,265 cases with 269 deaths.


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