One year after COVID-19 was reported in China, the cumulative death toll from the pandemic has exceeded 0.1% of the world's population. Activities in all areas of healthcare, economics, education, and culture have had to be restricted, and this has resulted in a global economic downturn. A large-scale global economic crisis has begun. World governments have banned their citizens from engaging in activities in an attempt to prevent further loss of life and the spread of the disease. New daily changes to policies in each country are being implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and having citizens quarantine is one method.
Test, trace, treat
After the first reporting of COVID-19 in China in December 2019, Korea announced its first confirmed case in January 2020. For more information on that refer to the Coverstory in The Sookmyung Times No. 358. On February 18, patient number 31 was confirmed to have participated in religious activities at the church Shincheonji. The number of cases soared, mainly Shincheonji believers in Daegu and Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. In total the number of cases grew to 6,000. This was the first COVID-19 wave in Korea. In response, the government strengthened punishments for people suspected of having the infectious disease who refused to get tested. They could face a prison sentence. The government also closed down the Shincheonji Church. Obtaining a list of Shincheonji believers, the government quickly set out to test all possible infected people. Because of the effort by the government and citizens, the number of COVID-19 cases decreased to double digits by April 2020. However, in August 2020, the second wave hit, originating from Sarang Jeil Church. Unlike the outbreak earlier in the year in Daegu and Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, the number of cases per day exceeded 200, due to a nationwide spread of the disease and uncooperative attitudes among infected people. Because of these two situations, the government set restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather together to no more than 10 people in order to prevent further spread. As a result, the number of confirmed cases in Korea decreased again. The government called this Korean quarantine system, "K-Quarantine."
K-Quarantine is a three part initiative. The first step is 'Test,' which refers to increased COVID-19 testing capability. In Korea, the testing can be done for up to 40,000 people per day, and the test quickly determines whether the individual is infected with COVID-19, which prevents the person from spreading it to others. The second step is 'Trace'. This part of the initiative tracks the travel of individuals who have tested positive. It uses Korea's IT and communication infrastructure to prevent further infection. Finally, 'Treat' refers to mandatory early isolation for infected persons. A dualization system was adopted to treat patients with minor symptoms at Residential Treatment Centers and patients with severe symptoms at Negative Pressure Isolation Rooms. Together, K-Quarantine involves smooth supply and production of quarantine goods, IT and communication infrastructure, and public awareness. The K-Quarantine plan was effective during the first wave of the pandemic, and the government continues to promote it. The Governor of Gyeonggi Province, Lee Jaemyung on his Facebook page on January 25, 2021 said, "It is undeniable that the results of the quarantine plan in Korea will be praised by all nations in the world because of its excellence in preventing the spread of the disease." Lee emphasized the results of K-Quarantine. K-Quarantine has also attracted attention from foreign media. The Wall Street Journal praised Korea's quarantine achievements, saying, 'Korea seems to have found a code corresponding to COVID-19' In other words, K-Quarantine is recognized as effective on the global stage, but the reality of K-Quarantine is different.
Truth of K-Quarantine
Unlike praise from the government and foreign media, the COVID-19 pandemic response is being criticized by the public. During the first wave, because of the large number of infected persons at Shincheonji Church, the government was viewed as partly responsible for allowing the virus to spread. It was seen as not doing enough to prevent the disease from being imported into Korea. Following this, the second wave, originating from Sarang Jeil Church, caused more public indignation. Mostly because the wave occurred at a religious place again. Professor Kim Wooju, at the Department of Infectious Diseases, Korea University Guro Hospital said, "The fundamental reason for the re-proliferation of COVID-19 is the government's quarantine policy failure."1) Kim is holding the government accountable for the situation. After the first wave, the government did not impose sanctions on religious organizations or personal meetings, so on August 16, 2020, right after the first Sarang Jeil Church case, the number of cases reached 200 per day. It was only then that the government announced a level 2 social distancing policy. However, the number of cases did not decrease, so the government raised the level to 2.5 on August 21. Still, there were institutional weaknesses, for instance, the self-employed standard at the 2.5 social distance level was vague. As a result, Internet cafés and karaoke shops were banned, but board game cafés and escape room cafés could open. Moreover, independently owned cafés were allowed to open while franchise cafés were not allowed. This resulted in more new cases. One self-employed individual complained about the standard with "This is a selective distancing, not social distancing. I oppose the government policy." on the portal site cafe. The person strongly criticized the government's policy, and the flaws of the plan and policies began to appear.
The level 2.5 continued through the Chuseok holidays, and the number of cases returned to double digits only after Chuseok. The government immediately eased the standard of social distance to level 1 on October 12, but on November 1, the number of cases in Korea once again surpassed 100. In response, The Korean Society of Infectious Diseases and professional academic organizations made an announcement on the website of The Korea Society of Infectious Diseases: "Quarantine measures should be preemptive and strong. It must also be done quickly." They warned the government in documentation, but the government did not consider their recommendation in order to minimize economic damage. In the end, on December 1, when the number of cases topped 500, the government finally decided to move to level 2+α. However, it was not very effective, and on December 6 when the number of cases exceeded 600, the government announced it would implement level 2.5 of social distancing. Experts criticized the government's attitude. Professor Kim Wooju said, "The quarantine measures can't catch up to the number of cases. The social distance level change is lagging behind by a step or two."2) That is, the government's slow response to the warning from the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases has led to additional waves.
Fault does not all lie with the poor policy decisions by the government. In August, when the second wave was hitting the nation, the heat of the summer made enforcing the quarantine harder. Because of the heat, people would gather inside buildings. They were exposed to the virus that spread in the air from air conditioners, fans, and others, so the number of cases rose. Many cases were reported in cafés and reading rooms that had opened due to relaxed social distancing at that time. Furthermore, individuals had grown tired of COVID-19. The long durations of social distance made people tired and depressed, and it became known as the Corona Blue phenomenon. According to a survey by Saramin conducted in April 2020, among 3,725 adults, 2967 of respondents (79.7%) said they were tired of having to keep social distancing regulations. Corona Blue is problematic because it leads to rejecting quarantine measures that then leads to group infection. The bigger problem will be when Corona Blue is in full bloom. If people lose their will and become depressed due to Corona Blue, it will be difficult to acquire additional human resources like nurses or doctors compared to now, and the medical field has already found it hard to secure staff due to the COVID-19 waves. Unlike when the nation could invest all its resources into the outbreak in Daegu, there will be no way to manage all sick people if the cases become countless. Overall, there are noticeable weaknesses with the K-Quarantine initiative.
In the end
Because inaction has increased the number of COVID-19 patients, anger is setting the tone in society, especially after people heard about how Taiwan stopped a COVID-19 outbreak right at the beginning. It is now nearing the end of the COVID-19 outbreak there. Taiwan was quick to stop all direct flights to and from China. They also set fines of 150,000 NTD (about 615 million won) for inaccurate quarantine notices, violations of self-quarantine, and false statements and omissions of contact information and health conditions. Taiwan did all these in February, the early stages of COVID-19 spread. As a result, it recorded zero domestic case for 200 days. Moreover, its economic growth rate has not suffered any loss, because no restrictions on movement or suspension of large-scale factory operation. In a supplement to the 2020 Asian economic outlook announced by the ADB on December 10, Taiwan's economic growth rate in 2020 grew 0.9% points from 0.8% in September to 1.7%. In other words, its quarantine initiatives and policies have succeeded, and it has seen economic growth. Koreans, hearing about Taiwan, wanted the government to be held accountable for failing to block imported cases. Maeilsinbo reported, "The situation in Korea is miserable compared to Taiwan. Unlike Korea, which is suffering from waves of the pandemic, Taiwan has shown excellent quarantine results. The Korean government is only complimenting its K-Quarantine initiative. That is all it has done over the past 10 months."3) This statement clearly shows growing anger towards the government for failing to stop imported cases from arriving and for its other belated responses.
The resentment is not subsiding. As the third wave continues, Korea is finding itself with a shortage of treatment facilities. As a result, Gyonggi University and University of Seoul dormitories have been requisitioned as treatment facilities. The Gyonggi University notified its students to vacate their rooms by 4 p.m. on December 16, which forced more than 100 students to leave their dormitory rooms. The student body of University of Seoul expressed its regret to having to notify students to leave so that it could change the dormitory into a treatment facility, saying, "It is regrettable that the school's official announcement was not made with the collective opinion of all stakeholders on campus before designing the dormitory a treatment facility." In other words, the government that mandated change of dormitories to treatment facilities has damaged civilians. The move by the government is even more problematic given that the medical association warned the government several times about the expected shortage of treatment facilities before this dormitory change happened. "I proposed training programs to increase medical personnel during the second wave in August. I don't understand why the government sat on its hands even though there were clearly opportunities to prepare." said Jeong Kiseok, professor of Internal Medicine, Division of Pulmonology at Hallym University.4) These facts point out the need for the government to be more responsible. It did not follow the opinion of the medical association and it caused the current situation.
Against this background, the Korean government is continuing its level 2.5 level social distancing, especially in the metropolitan area from December 2020. Although the number of visitors has decreased due to the ban on gathering of more than five people and the suspension of restaurant business after 9 o'clock, the number of visitors is still around 300 per day. This suggests more quarantine measures are needed. At the moment, the government is securing vaccines and plans to inoculate its citizens, the last stage of its quarantine plan. However, many people are claiming the vaccination is coming too late. It has already begun in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S., while Korea delayed vaccine purchases and distribution for safety reasons. Yoon Taeho, the head of the quarantine department at the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at a regular briefing on January 15 said, "We will first examine ill-effects of the vaccine in foreign countries and then design a safe vaccination plan. We are making an effort to first reduce the number of cases before starting the vaccination rollout at the end of February." The government is trying to ensure safety for its citizens indicating a cautious choice. Like this, Korea is approaching the final stage of its K-Quarantine initiative.
No more mistakes
The success or failure of the government’s K-Quarantine plan is now at stake. Although Korea has made it through three waves of the pandemic, it has entered the toughest final stage of quarantine, the vaccine stage. Considering it will still be some time before herd immunity, the government will likely be unable to ease social distancing levels. Also, the efficacy of the vaccine as well as side effects after receiving a vaccination shot will be the keys to determining the success or failure of K-Quarantine. Therefore, the final decision on K-Quarantine will be carried out after nationwide vaccination.
1) Lee Haein, "An Infectious Disease Expert, "COVID-19 Re-proliferation, Obviously a Government Responsibility,"" ChosunMedia, August 19, 2020
2) Park Eunjoo, “Experts Say, "Stay Away, It's a Week Late...There Needs Level 3", KUKMINILBO, December 6, 2020
3) Maeilsinbo, "Failed Quarantine, Sluggish Vaccine Support, What Has the President and His Administration Done So Far?", December 15, 2020.
4) Baek Minjung, "Only 12 Beds for Intensive Care Patients in the Seoul Metropolitan Area...Seoul has Begun Mobilized Container Beds," Korea JoongAng Daily, December 9, 2020