Authorities recommend at least 2 more weeks of social distancing, despite drop in cases

Posted on : 2020-03-16 16:55 KST Modified on : 2020-03-16 17:06 KST
S. Korea’s number of new diagnoses per day falls to double digits for first time in 23 days
Employees have lunch at the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education’s in-house cafeteria on Mar. 27, making sure not to sit across from each other and refraining from conversation during their meal. (Yonhap News)
Employees have lunch at the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education’s in-house cafeteria on Mar. 27, making sure not to sit across from each other and refraining from conversation during their meal. (Yonhap News)

The decline in the number of new novel coronavirus diagnoses per day to double digits for the first time in 23 days -- with a total of 76 recorded as of Mar. 15, 12:00 am – has people speculating on how long and how intensively they should be practicing social distancing to prevent further infections. Disease prevention authorities have indicated that they plan to decide on whether to adjust their recommended level of social distancing after analyzing the associated contagion risks. Experts have been stressing the importance of people not letting down their guard, calling the decline in cases an “optical illusion” amid the conclusion of testing on members of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu and insisting that further caution -- including additional postponement of classes -- will be need to be exercised over the next two weeks or more.

Social distancing -- essentially a form of hiatus -- has been emerging in forms such as the postponement of classes, telecommuting, and avoidance of events and gatherings. Apart from orders to close kindergartens and primary and secondary schools, it is not compulsory, but disease prevention authorities have strongly recommended social distancing across society due to the coronavirus’s transmission rate. Early on in the contagion, it may have been enough to watch airports and other entry points to look for sources of infection -- but since the situation’s escalation with community infections in regions such as Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the strategy has been to prevent additional transmission by minimizing social gatherings. The novel influenza outbreak of 2009 was also a pandemic, but with the coronavirus’s quicker transmission rate and the lack of a vaccine or treatment, social distancing in forms such as school closures is being emphasized all the more strongly.

The biggest concern for disease prevention authorities is that while the increase in new diagnoses has indeed been in decline, differences among regions have been large. On Mar. 15, an additional 41 people were newly diagnosed with the virus compared to the day before, while Seoul and Gyeonggi Province in the Greater Seoul area saw respective increases of nine and 11; in contrast, South Gyeongsang Province saw no diagnoses for a third straight day. In Gangwon Province, the level has held steady at zero to one new patient per day since Mar. 11. Amid the continued fatigue, regions where few patients have been diagnosed seem to be reaching a point where residents feel that they can relax more. Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), noted on Mar. 13 that the “number of patients has differed slightly by city and province, with seven metropolitan cities and provinces showing no new patients as of today.”

“While it’s difficult to estimate everything by any one yardstick, we plan to examine [future measures] after looking at the overall risk level and prospects,” she added.

Looking at how other countries are responding to virus

The response in other countries has been another focus of attention.

“If you look at the response from overseas governments, some of their policies have gone far beyond what you might describe as ‘social distancing’ to things on par with blockades,” KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said the same day.

“We plan to exchange views with other countries around the world and listen to expert analyses to incorporate [their suggestions] into our disaster prevention measures,” he said.

Experts and disease prevention officials agreed that people should continue to practice social distances while cluster infections are happening.

Half-hearted social distancing could be ineffective

“One ‘short and blunt’ approach to preventing additional transmission of the virus would be to intensify social distancing in the Greater Seoul area in particular over the next two weeks,” suggested Kim Dong-hyun, a professor of medicine at Hallym University and chairperson of the Korean Society of Epidemiology.

“If we practice social distancing in a half-hearted way, it could be ineffective and painful,” he said, suggesting that emphasis should be placed on having Greater Seoul residents refrain from domestic travel and keep gatherings and trips outside to a minimum, while policy support measures are taken to address the difficulties caused for small business operators and vulnerable population segments.

The same day, the city of Daegu proposed a campaign titled “The 328 Daegu Campaign to End COVID-19,” which has the aim of keeping the number of new coronavirus infections per day at the single-digit level by Mar. 28. The decision took into account the possibility of Daegu residents relaxing their social distancing efforts as the increase in the city’s new diagnoses tails off. The campaign calls on people to avoid traveling outside of Daegu for the next two weeks while keeping trips outside and gatherings to a minimum and adopting employee leave and telecommuting measures.

Disease prevention authorities also called on people to continue practicing intensive social distancing for the time being.

“Social distancing is fully achieved when disease prevention in every area of our life [including schools, workplaces, and religious facilities] becomes as much a part of our life as separating our recyclables and trash,” Kwon Jun-wook said.

At the same time, some are stressing that the issue should not remain a concern for disease prevention authorities alone, as the social stoppages translate in turn into the economy grinding to a halt, with various segments facing inevitable losses.

“The matter of postponing classes alone ties in with a number of different areas, including school meals, janitors, and emergency caregiving,” noted Gi Mo-Ran, a professor of preventive medicine at the National Cancer Center.

“We’re going to need to have experts from every area of society taking part to develop follow-up measures to minimize the impact on people’s livelihoods while still observing the basic principles of disease prevention,” Gi suggested.

Im Seung-gwan, director of Gyeonggi Provincial Medical Center Ansung Hospital, said, “We need to decide whether to prioritize disease prevention or minimizing the epidemic’s societal and economic impact, and convince the public of the reasoning for our decision.”

By Park Su-ji and Park Hyun-jung, staff reporters, and Kim Il-woo, Daegu correspondent

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

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