Takeaways for S. Korea from other countries’ transitions to “living with COVID-19”

Posted on : 2021-11-17 16:09 KST Modified on : 2021-11-17 16:26 KST
South Korea officially started its transition to normalcy on Nov. 1, but with critical COVID-19 cases hitting record numbers, it’s time to evaluate how other nations have dealt with upswings in cases after easing restrictions
A cafe in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, shuts down for the night on Saturday as the country prepares to return to stricter disease control measures. (EPA/Yonhap News)
A cafe in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, shuts down for the night on Saturday as the country prepares to return to stricter disease control measures. (EPA/Yonhap News)

The number of severe and critical COVID-19 cases in South Korea has been on the rise since the government’s introduction of measures on Nov. 1 aimed at a gradual return to everyday life.

How have the other countries that went the path of “living with COVID-19” ahead of South Korea been responding to the situation worsening after their declaring a return to normalcy? The Hankyoreh examined details from the foreign press, the websites of individual countries’ public health institutions, and a Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP) report on COVID-19 disease control transitions in major countries and the economic prospects to find out.

Singapore: vacillating disease control measures since decision to “live with COVID-19”

Having previously instituted strict disease control measures, Singapore has been adjusting the level of its response since implementing its plans to “live with” COVID-19. With a low degree of societal acceptance when cases rise, it has been observing the trends and easing or tightening its measures accordingly.

Singapore announced plans for a gradual return to normalcy back in June, when its first-dose vaccine administration rate was 65%. But amid a rise in cases due to the spread of the virus’ Delta variant in July, it returned to a more intensive disease control approach, bringing back distancing measures such as bans on dining in and gatherings of three or more people.

In mid-August, the COVID-19 situation began to stabilize, and some measures were eased in response, with vaccinated people allowed to gather in groups of up to five people. But that limit was reduced once again to two vaccinated people in late September after cases began to surge.

The increase in Singapore’s COVID-19 cases continued from there, with the daily new caseload surpassing 5,000 late last month. In November, it began to drop off again, and private gatherings of up to five vaccinated people were allowed as of Nov. 10.

One notable aspect of Singapore’s response has been that even after deciding to live with COVID-19, it has continued to put effort into epidemiological investigations, including the contact tracing of people who test positive.

This is done with TraceTogether, an app used by over 90% of the population. Based on Bluetooth technology, it alerts people determined to be close contacts after spending time in an environment with a confirmed COVID-19 patient. But lingering questions remain about the use of information gathered in the process, which some are calling a violation of privacy.

Today, Singapore’s full vaccination rate is over 85%, but it continues working to drive that percentage up further through penalties for the unvaccinated.

As of Dec. 8, unvaccinated Singaporeans will be responsible for all incurred medical costs when they test positive for COVID-19. They also appear likely to face difficulties returning to their workplaces — after authorities made the decision to allow only vaccinated people or recovered COVID-19 patients to start reporting to work again next year.

Europe: UK aside, countries adopt stronger vaccine passport rules or lockdowns

European countries that have struggled with rising COVID-19 caseloads in the wave of early decisions to live with the virus are now tightening the disease control reins while devising the same kinds of measures as Singapore to penalize the unvaccinated.

Germany has faced a worsening COVID-19 situation since its August declaration of plans to live with the virus, with new daily cases surpassing 50,000 on Friday. In response, it is weighing plans to bar unvaccinated people from entering indoor establishments.

Those restrictions are part of a new disease control plan being discussed by three German political parties — the Social Democratic Party, Free Democratic Party, and the Greens — as they work on putting together the next coalition government. Also under consideration are plans to keep the indoor mask requirement in place and reintroduce free COVID-19 testing.

Denmark announced on Nov. 8 that it was reintroducing COVID-19 vaccine passports. Under this system, people are required to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 status in order to enter restaurants, bars, and other establishments.

This comes two months after the country moved in September to lift restrictions on gatherings regardless of vaccination status.

Denmark declared plans to live with COVID-19 when its full vaccination rate was 75%. For roughly a month afterward, its new daily caseload did not rise.

But that situation has changed recently. On Friday, more than 3,000 daily cases were confirmed. As of Sunday, the number of people hospitalized with the virus was nearly triple its level when the “living with COVID-19” declaration was made — prompting Danish disease control authorities to return to the vaccine passport approach.

The Netherlands has responded with another lockdown. In early November, it announced the return of mandatory mask-wearing in public settings; as of Saturday, it has decided to implement social distancing for a minimum of three weeks.

Under this regime, restaurants and other essential businesses are allowed to remain open until 8 pm, while businesses that are not considered essential can only operate until 6 pm. Sporting events can only be held without spectators.

Despite having a full vaccination rate of over 70%, the Netherlands has recently been experiencing a sharp rise in confirmed cases. On Saturday, the new daily caseload stood at 16,287 — more than 10 times higher than the level two months earlier when the countries declared plans to return to normalcy.

The UK has been adopting a quite different approach in its disease control policies. Since lifting disease control measures last July, British health authorities have not imposed any clear measures at all beyond an emphasis on voluntary adherence to disease prevention rules.

The UK continues “living with” COVID-19, even as the weekly number of deaths has risen, reaching 1,185 during the first week of November — more than four times the 284 recorded during the week just before the lifting of restrictions was announced in July.

The British government previously developed a “plan B” with measures to prepare for a major increase in COVID-19 cases, including mandatory mask-wearing, vaccine passport issuance, and a transition to working from home. That plan has yet to be put into effect.

“Vaccines are not enough”: Calls for customized strategy measures

Experts in South Korea said the overseas cases suggest a need for various measures beyond simply increasing the vaccination rate or conferring advantages and disadvantages based on vaccination status.

Based on an analysis of European COVID-19 response measures, KIEP associate research fellow Jang Young-ook said, “While the European countries are focusing on stepping up disease control measures for unvaccinated people, that may not be a good policy approach.”

Noting that “vaccine effectiveness is diminishing, and breakthrough cases are occurring even among the vaccinated,” he suggested, “In South Korea’s case, I think we should be emphasizing customized disease control with a focus on high-risk populations like senior citizens and long-term care hospital [residents], rather than creating separate policies based on vaccination status.”

By Park Jun-yong, staff reporter

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

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