Sep 18 — 6 am
Infections: 22,657 | Cleared: 19,543 | Under treatment: 2,742 | Deaths: 372
(As of Sep 17, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases never fell below 100 as hoped this week, which has the authorities worried about the upcoming holidays in early October. One way they are trying to curb people’s movement is by collecting highway tolls. Since 2017 the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has waived toll fees for the Lunar New Year and Chuseok holidays. They are hoping that collecting the fees this year might just nudge people into staying home.
Of the new identified cases in the past week, four out of ten were people aged 60 or older, which raises the risk of mortality. Of the total of 372 deaths since January, 48 occurred just in the first two weeks of September. Seniors generally catch the virus in senior daycare facilities, nursing homes, churches, and door-to-door sales training sessions, so they are being encouraged to avoid such places and gatherings and to keep their masks on if they must go. There was one recent outbreak at a sales training session in Daegu in which all but one attendee tested positive. The session was held in a basement-level hall, which might have made ventilation difficult. And while everyone did keep their masks on most of the time, they might have lowered their masks briefly for snacks after the meeting. The only person to test negative claimed that he never lowered his KF94 mask, not even for a sip of water, then left the session early, before snack time, just to take extra precautions. It’s unclear whether it was the KF94 mask, compared to the more breathable masks most people wore, that made a difference, or the fact that he left the room before snack time. Either way, it would be a good idea to keep your mask on.
The Ministry of Education decided this week to resume classroom instruction for schools in the greater Seoul region from September 21. Kindergarten, elementary, and middle school classes may bring in one-third of the class at a time, and high schools two-thirds of the class. For most of the students then, this will be the first day of setting foot on school grounds in the new semester.
One man who wore a KF94 mask escapes coronavirus transmission, Joongang Ilbo (Kor)
Schools in and around Seoul will resume limited in-person classes on September 21, Yonhap News (Kor)
Coronavirus: South Korea’s Covid detectives, BBC News (Eng)
Sep 14 — midnight — Back down to Level 2
Infections: 22,176| Cleared: 18,226 | Under treatment: 3,592 | Deaths: 358
(As of Sept 13, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Two weeks of Level ‘2.5’ social distancing seem to have done the trick in the greater Seoul region: the average number of new cases per day in the week of Aug 30 – Sep 5 was 162, dropping to 99 from Sep 6–12. Nationwide, however, the percentage of positive cases that could not be traced back to a cluster actually increased from 17.3% (Aug 16–29) to 22.4% (Aug 30 – Sep 12). Still, given the economic pressure on small businesses and lower income groups, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters decided to lower the social distancing measures in the greater Seoul area to Level 2 while making certain guidelines more specific. The following measures are effective starting today and will run until (at least) Sep 27.
Franchise cafes, bakeries, ice cream shops in the greater Seoul region may now admit sit-down customers in limited numbers as long as they block off alternating tables. Customers must check in by app or leave their information manually, and keep the mask on while not consuming food or drinks.
Restaurants in the greater Seoul region may admit sit-down customers after 9 am. Restaurants larger than 150 square meters must take customers’ contact information, keep the tables at least a meter apart, and enforce mask-wearing. They are also advised to put up barriers between tables, and to provide extra plates so that diners can take their own portions from communal plates.
Study rooms, hagwons (less than 300 person capacity), job training centers, and indoor fitness centers in the greater Seoul region may now admit customers. They should also take down customer information, maintain at least a meter between customers, and enforce mask-wearing. The facilities should be regularly sanitized and ventilated.
Internet cafes throughout the country are also no longer on the list of high-risk facilities. They may begin admitting customers (but only adults aged 19 or older). Alternating seats should be blocked off, and eating is not permitted.
Churches may now resume official weekly services. Other smaller unofficial gatherings such as prayer meetings and meals are still prohibited.
Schools in the greater Seoul region will continue with distance learning until Sep 20 as planned. High school seniors will continue to attend school, as they did in the past few weeks, in order to prepare for the upcoming college entrance exam (College Scholastic Ability Test) and submit applications. The Ministry of Education will decide later today on what happens after Sep 20. Other regions in Korea will continue with Level 2 measures, which means one-third of classroom capacity for kindergartens, elementary, and junior high schools, and two-thirds capacity for high schools until Sep 20.
High risk facilities include night clubs, bars, karaoke rooms, indoor concert halls with standing audiences, indoor group exercise facilities, buffet restaurants, door-to-door sales and promotion headquarters, and hagwons (300 or more capacity). Nursing homes and nursing care facilities will continue to prohibit visitors. And gatherings of 50 or more people indoors and 100 or more outdoors are still prohibited. (A gathering is specified as a temporary assembly of people meeting for a common purpose at an agreed upon time and place.)
The government has also announced plans to raise the social distancing alert measures for two weeks from Sep 28 – Oct 11 in time for the Chuseok holidays (Sept 28 – Oct 2) and the Foundation Day holiday (Oct 3). The specifics may change depending on pandemic trends. But with this announcement the government is strongly encouraging the nation to skip family gatherings this Chuseok or to at least avoid the holiday rush. Civil society organizations, including right-wing groups, are already planning more mass rallies for Foundation Day and Hangeul Proclamation Day (Oct 9), though these are unlikely to be permitted given how the August 15 rally turned out.
Mass rallies planned for October 3 and 9 , Dong-A Ilbo (Kor)
Sep 11 — 7 am — Fourth supplementary budget, international survey results on perceptions and anxiety
Infections: 21,743| Cleared: 17,360 | Under treatment: 4,037 | Deaths: 346
(As of Sep 10, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
According to cell phone GPS data, the movements of Seoul residents last weekend (September 5–6) were down by about 20% compared to the weekend before Social Distancing Level 2 was implemented (August 15–16). This is of course partly due to the introduction of the stricter ‘Level 2.5’ measures, which have been in force since August 30. The number of new cases has also fallen since mid August, but stayed in the 100s this past week. We are still not seeing a clear and significant decline in the numbers, but at this point it seems likely that the Level 2.5 restrictions in greater Seoul will come to an end on Sunday September 13, as planned.
Yesterday the government officially announced the release of this year’s fourth supplementary budget totaling ₩7.8 trillion. The extra funding will provide targeted support for small businesses, especially those designated high-risk and forced to close due to the pandemic. Part of the budget will also go toward employment subsidies, as well as supporting the self-employed and others without employment insurance. The budget also includes child-care subsidies and financial help for the low-income demographic. It also includes a one-time ₩20,000 telecommunications subsidy for all citizens over the age of 13, automatically applied to their phone bills. The government plans to roll out these payments before the Chuseok holidays.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center (Global Attitude Survey) conducted between June and August this year compared 14 advanced economies—several European countries plus the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and South Korea—on their response to Covid-19. Here I will mention just a few points on how South Korea compares to the others.
How much has the coronavirus changed everyday life? Surprisingly, most people didn’t think it had changed very much. Across all 14 countries, a median of 51% responded “not too much” or “not at all”, and 48% a “great deal” or a “fair amount”. And among the countries where two-thirds or more thought that the pandemic has changed their lives at least a fair amount, most had never implemented a national lockdown. South Korea is among them and Koreans were the most likely of all nationalities to answer that their lives have changed either fairly or greatly (81%).
In all countries except Korea, younger people were more inclined to think that greater international cooperation would have lowered the number of coronavirus cases. In Korea the difference is small but reversed, with older people slightly more likely to say that South Korea should have cooperated more with other countries (54% of 18 to 20 year olds, 58% of 30 to 49 year olds and 63% of people over 50). An interesting correlation on international cooperation is that if the government is led by a left-leaning political party, as it is in South Korea, Sweden, and Spain, more people who identified with the political right responded that they would have preferred more international cooperation.
South Koreans also tend to be much more anxious than others, or at least they tend to answer survey questions in extremes. When asked to consider a list of threats as major, minor, or not a threat to their country, 89% of South Korean survey participants considered the spread of infectious diseases a major threat. In fact, the current pandemic was the number one threat, followed by conditions of the global economy (83%) and cyberattacks from other countries (83%) tying for second, and global climate change coming third (81%). These numbers are much higher than the median across all of the surveyed countries, where 70% of respondents considered climate change a major threat, 69% the spread of infectious diseases, 65% cyberattacks, and 58% the global economy. Koreans ranked highest among the 14 surveyed countries on concerns about the pandemic, despite having had far fewer positive cases and deaths than other countries. Koreans were also most likely to consider the state of the global economy a major threat, though the 2020 result was not such a steep increase from 2017 (77%) and 2018 (74%) compared to some other countries (the UK going from 41% in 2018 to 65% in 2020, for example). Finally, while in most countries, including South Korea, “large numbers of people moving from one country to another” was the least worrying of the items listed (median of 40%), Koreans still ranked highest with 52% considering it a major threat to their country.
The fourth supplementary budget , Korea Herald (Eng)
Survey results on national response to Covid-19, Pew Research Center (Eng)
Survey results on threats to countries , Pew Research Center (Eng)
Sep 9 — 8 am — KCDC becomes an independent agency, mass production of antibody treatment begins, and plans for Chuseok
Infections: 21, 432| Cleared: 16,636 | Under treatment: 4,455 | Deaths: 349
(As of Sep 8, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Yesterday the Ministry of the Interior and Safety announced that the KCDC will be renamed the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) and, from this Saturday, the stand-alone agency will have more authority over the processes of tracing, testing, analysis, and prevention of infectious diseases. The agency will also be supplemented with 42% more personnel. Jung Eun-kyeong, the first female director of the KCDC, will head the new agency as well. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jung has been reporting on the latest developments at the KCDC’s daily press briefings, becoming the face of calm expertise and sacrificial commitment. The way she cut her hair short to reduce time spent showering, or how, when asked about her own health, she self-effacingly answered that she gets more than an hour of sleep, have left an impression on the public, who have taken to calling her “Corona warrior”.
The KCDC announced yesterday that antibody treatments for Covid-19 will start to be mass-produced this month, before all the clinical trials have been completed. This is to prepare for efficient distribution as soon as the drugs are approved for use, after the third trial, which is projected to be completed in May next year. The KCDC seems to have taken cues from other countries such as Russia and the United States in accelerating the trial and production processes.
Finally, the Chuseok holidays this year will be September 30 to October 2, but the Ministry of Health and Welfare is asking citizens to stay home and refrain from traveling home for family gatherings, if at all possible. Every Chuseok, as during the Lunar New Year, many travel out of urban centers to visit their parents and grandparents and perform jesa, or the ancestral rites. Although these days many families skip the elaborate jesa rituals, asking Koreans to refrain from visiting their elderly parents at all really goes against the traditional virtue of filial piety. But making travel inconvenient, like trains selling window seats only, might effectively cut down the population movement.
Sep 7 — 8 am — Level 2.5 continues in Greater Seoul, and an update on the doctors’ strike
Infections: 21, 177| Cleared: 16,146 | Under treatment: 4,697 | Deaths: 334
(As of Sep 6, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new identified patients has continued to fall in the last few days. But in order to see more pronounced effects of social distancing and to fortify the tracing and treatment capacities, the government announced last Friday that the nationwide Social Distancing Level 2 will be extended beyond its original end-date of September 6. The same goes for the stronger version, sometimes called ”Level 2.5”, which is in force in Seoul and the surrounding areas.
The nationwide measures that were brought in on August 23 will be extended until September 20, which means gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and more than 100 outdoors will remain prohibited, high risk facilities and indoor public facilities should remain closed, sports games should continue to be held without spectators, and schools should limit on-site attendance (a third of the class may gather in kindergarten, elementary, and middle schools, and two-thirds in high schools). Local governments may also determine whether schools in their area should resort entirely to distance learning and whether churches should hold services online.
The Level 2.5 measures for Greater Seoul will be extended by just one more week, until September 13. The additional restrictions in this region prohibit indoor exercise facilities from operating, and require hagwons with over 10-person capacity to conduct their classes through distance learning. Restaurants and bakeries can admit sit-down customers between 5am and 9am only, though take-outs and deliveries are permitted beyond these hours. Franchise cafes, and now also franchise bakeries, are limited to serving take-out and delivery orders. Job training and adult learning facilities are also included in the list of educational facilities that should convert to distance learning. All churches in the SMR should continue to avoid gathering in person and conduct their services online. And all schools, except high schools, in the SMR will continue to operate through distance learning until September 20. High schools may conduct classes at one-third capacity.
The Korean Medical Association (KMA) doctors have officially ended their strike and the interns and residents of the Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA) were also due to return to work on September 7. But because KIRA members continued to question the leadership’s decision, the association decided to extend their strike for another day in order to hold an online meeting in which they could explain their decision to the members. KIRA, which is under the KMA, claims to have been left out of the final negotiations between the KMA and the government and did not entirely achieve what they set out to do, namely to force the government into retracting the controversial new policies. However, KIRA’s leadership is urging members to return to work, in order to avoid further division among doctors. Meanwhile, medical students are continuing with their collective action to boycott the board exam.
Sep 4 — 7 am — Is the curve flattening? Second round of disaster relief funding
Infections: 20,644 | Cleared: 15,529 | Under treatment: 4,786 | Deaths: 329
(As of Sep 3, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Social distancing Level 2 for the Seoul Metropolitan Region is due to end on September 6. According to the KCDC, public efforts to keep to the guidelines have been effective, gradually lowering the daily number of new cases of Covid-19, which fell to 195 yesterday. The decrease in new cases was seen despite the fact that the average number of tests conducted each day has stayed consistently around 19,000 for the past two weeks (August 21 to September 3), even rising to over 20,000 this week. The movements of the region’s residents were traced through phone GPS tracking, credit card transactions, and public transportation usage, revealing that population movement on the second weekend of Level 2 restrictions (August 29–30) was about 25% lower than the weekend before Level 2 was implemented (August 15–16). Of course, that second weekend of Level 2 was actually more like Level 2.5, given the stronger measures and increased enforcement that were introduced.
The National Assembly is reaching the negotiation stage of the second round of disaster relief support funding. Unlike the first round, which provided a set amount of financial support for all citizens, this second round is shaping up to be more targeted to those most affected by Covid-19 and the subsequent social distancing measures, with small business owners, freelancers, and the unemployed among those being considered for extra help. The fourth supplementary budget will stay under ₩10 trillion. The assembly is aiming to distribute the funding before the Chuseok holidays in late September and early October.
Second disaster relief fund in the works, Nocut News (Kor)
Sep 2 — 7 am — Doctors’ strike continues
Infections: 20,182 | Cleared: 15,198 | Under treatment: 4,660 | Deaths: 324
(As of Sep 1, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Yesterday the total number of Covid-19 patients passed the 20,000 mark. The number of daily new cases fell over the weekend—though still remaining in the 200s—but the KCDC was careful to stress that this does not mean the crisis is over. There are now 104 patients in intensive care, which is the first time since the pandemic started in Korea that this number has exceeded one hundred, and considering the high proportion of seniors being identified, the death toll is expected to rise in the coming days and weeks. There are also many more potential patients yet to be traced and identified.
The doctors’ strike continues. Interns, residents, fellows, and medical students formed a Young Doctors’ Emergency Response Committee yesterday and announced that they will continue to strike in solidarity until the government is willing to restart from square one the discussions regarding the controversial new policies for the medical system. The young doctors are claiming to be simply “powerless youth who know nothing of politics” but who have decided to unite in the face of the government’s “brutal exercise of authority”. By this they seem to be referring to the recent inspections in hospital ERs and ICUs to check whether interns and residents are at work, and the possibility of their licenses being revoked if they are not. Alongside the interns and residents, 93% of fourth year medical students have also joined the strike by refusing to take this year’s national board exam, which was scheduled to start this week. The government has postponed the exam for another week to allow some more time to negotiate. Fellows and some medical school professors are also joining with the strike to protect the younger doctors from penalties. The Ministry of Health and Welfare meanwhile has stated that, while being open to negotiations, it cannot scrap an entire policy that has already passed through months of discussions and negotiations with multiple stakeholders, such as government representatives and civil society organizations. To do as the doctors demand would violate the process and be unfair to other stakeholders of the medical system.
Meanwhile there have been two cases of ambulances transporting patients (unrelated to Covid-19) being turned away by multiple ERs due to a lack of doctors, resulting in the patients’ deaths. The young doctors have stated that the strikes are an issue of social justice, and that they are fighting for the patients’ cause, but public opinion is not looking too kindly on them. A web page has been created to allow people to identify and boycott hospitals participating in the strike; there are also multiple petitions on the Chung Wa Dae website demanding that the doctors be penalized for their “acts of medical terror” for striking during the pandemic and causing deaths that could have been avoided.
”Young doctors” continue their strike, Ohmynews (Kor)
Two patients dead while searching for an ER, JTBC (Kor)
Chung Wa Dae petitions to penalize striking doctors, Hankook Ilbo (Kor)