S. Korea to pursue gradual return to normal despite spike in daily COVID-19 cases

한겨레 2021. 9. 29. 17:46
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A committee responsible for developing a roadmap toward a gradual return to everyday life has been assembled, and vaccine passes are being discussed as a possible element of relaxing distancing restrictions
People enjoy picnics at Olympic Park in Songpa District, Seoul on Sept. 22. (Yonhap News)

The South Korean government intends to proceed as planned with steps toward a gradual return to everyday life in early November, even if COVID-19 continues to spread at its current level with confirmed cases exceeding 3,000 per day.

It is also considering the adoption of “vaccine passes,” where only limited categories of people — including those who have received their full COVID-19 vaccine dose — will be eligible to use certain multipurpose facilities.

The government additionally began work on creating a committee responsible for laying out the plans for a return to normalcy that is made up of disease prevention and medical response workers, in addition to representatives of other areas of society, including the economy, education, culture, and local governments.

At a Korea Broadcasting Journalists Club roundtable on Tuesday, Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol said that South Korea’s medical response system would be “sufficiently capable” of handling a daily caseload of 3,000 or more confirmed cases and that the country would be able to proceed with a gradual return to everyday life, provided that the government’s late-October targets of fully vaccinating 80% of adults and 90% of senior citizens are met.

He also said that the shift toward a “living with COVID-19” approach was not hasty, noting that while the UK began its gradual return to normal life while its full vaccination rate was just 1.6%, whereas South Korea had a full vaccination rate of 46.6% as of Tuesday.

But he also noted that observation of basic disease prevention guidelines such as wearing masks indoors and regularly ventilating indoor spaces would remain necessary, saying that “our healthcare system would not be able to cope with 4,000 or 10,000 new confirmed cases per day.”

“For that reason, we are considering a phased easing [of restrictions] — based on business types, for example — rather than a full-scale elimination [of said restrictions],” he added.

The South Korean government similarly explained that with the 976 critical care beds and 10,212 beds for patients with moderate symptoms that it had secured as of Tuesday, the South Korean healthcare system would be able to cope with as many as 3,500 new confirmed cases per day.

In addition to relaxing restrictions on private gatherings for fully vaccinated people and gradually removing restrictions on the use of multipurpose facilities, Kwon also said consideration was being given to the adoption of “vaccine passes,” where only fully vaccinated people or other restricted categories of people would be allowed to use certain establishments during the initial stages of the gradual return to everyday life.

He went on, saying that Germany grants permission for indoor events or use multipurpose facilities such as hospitals, long-term care facilities, nightlife establishments, and cinemas only to people who present a pass that certifies they have been either fully vaccinated, have tested negative for COVID-19, or have fully recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection.

“With confirmed cases currently being observed among unvaccinated people — many of them leading to critical symptoms and even death — we are considering applying such an approach, if only to protect these people,” he said.

One restriction he mentioned loosening involved possibly allowing restaurants and cafes, which currently can only stay open for take-away and delivery after 10 pm, to stay open for customer use until midnight or later. Another involved allowing for nightlife establishments, where gatherings are currently prohibited, to operate within limited hours.

Efforts are also underway to set up a committee to oversee the return to everyday routines after Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum delivered a plan for its composition to President Moon Jae-in the day prior. The committee is to be responsible for developing a roadmap toward a gradual return to everyday life beginning in late October or early November.

By Kim Ji-hoon, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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