As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread in record numbers across South Korea, the Korean government has dropped one social distancing rule after another. It now expects a return to normal by the end of March.
The curfew in catering establishments was extended by one hour to 10 p.m. at the end of February. Bobby Sul, the owner of OBok restaurant, a pork soup restaurant in Busan, said: “I think the fact that the government is easing restrictions despite the number of cases can give the public a sense of security that things are changing. in a positive direction. ”
The application of the national vaccine pass was also suspended on February 28. The decision follows a three-month-old court ruling against the system.
Dong-a IlboSeoul reporters found that electronic QR code scanners had been completely removed from eight of the ten cafes they visited. One owner said he was relieved to have more customers and fewer fights. However, some have expressed concern about the increased likelihood of catching coronavirus from unvaccinated customers. A 60-year-old operator said: “It’s convenient because I don’t have to check every vaccine pass, but I feel more nervous.
The case fatality rate of Omicron infections cited by the government is between 0.2% and 0.3%. The daily death toll set a new record of one hundred and fourteen on February 27, due to the high number of cases. The seven-day average has been rising since February 8. New cases have risen since the start of the year, peaking at 171,000 last week, after Omicron was first detected in Korea in December. Today, 98% of new cases are Omicron.
The government says the break in the vaccination pass is only temporary, but it’s hard to see why or how it could be reinstated. A new vaccine mandate would need to be redesigned to withstand the scrutiny of the courts. Part of the decision said the vaccine mandate is at odds with the government’s plans to return to normal by the end of March. If, as government projections predict, Omicron peaks in mid-March and the country abandons quarantine and social distancing rules thereafter, it would be hard to justify maintaining the mandate.
“According to health authorities on February 21, in people under the age of 50, the case fatality rate for Omicron is close to zero. Among fully immunized people of all ages, Omicron is about as or even less deadly than seasonal flu,” reads a Daegu court ruling.
The government also cited the heavy toll Omicron takes on local clinics. Besides vaccination certificates, negative test results are also accepted as a way to enter public facilities. COVID-19 clinics are overwhelmed with having to perform so many tests and issue so many certificates. The Ministry of Public Health says that about half of the 250,000 rapid tests carried out daily in public health establishments are aimed at obtaining a pass to enter.
But if clinics are stressed with around 150,000 positive cases per day, the situation will get worse when cases exceed 200,000. As the number of cases declines, Korea is expected to return to normal. As journalist Kim Do-yoon wrote for News Daum“it was advertised as a temporary suspension, but in fact it is an indefinite suspension” which will only be reimplemented if there is a new variant or other shock that requires it.
There are fears that ending the vaccine will lead to fewer people taking the booster, which is required for full vaccination status within six months of the first two shots, but more than half of Korean adults have received their third vaccine.
The Korean government had already changed tact out of necessity. PCR testing was phased out for most people in favor of rapid testing when the supply of PCR testing could no longer keep pace with Omicron. Record keeping in restaurants ceased, as it was not possible to trace so many cases. The quarantine was reduced from fourteen days to seven. South Korea recognized that there was no realistic way to stop the spread of Omicron and instead prioritized its management.
Jung Hae-hun, professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University College of Medicine, wrote in an op-ed for Hani, “Up to and throughout the Delta wave, policy was focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19 to reduce the number of cases. But now we’ve shifted to a strategy of tolerating the spread while minimizing the damage it causes. This change in policy was inevitable given the lack of alternatives: the Omicron variant is extremely transmissible and less than 5% of Korean adults are still unvaccinated.
Mitchell Blatt is a former editorial assistant at national interest. He is based in Korea where he covers foreign policy, Korean politics, elections and culture. It was published in USA today, South China Morning Post, The daily beast, Korea timeand Winds of silk magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Facebook at @MitchBlattWriter.