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South Korea: Venues open, despite Covid-19 spike

There are no plans to reinstate social distancing in South Korea, one of the first countries to report cases of Covid-19, despite a spike in infections linked to a cluster of venues in Seoul, the country’s deputy health minister has said.

Health officials were placed on high alert last week when a 29-year-old clubgoer tested positive for Covid-19 after having visited five nightlife venues in the neighbourhood of Itaewon, potentially exposing thousands to the virus, according to UPI. At press time, there had been 76 confirmed patients who attended the Itaewon clubs, as well as 43 who were infected through secondary transmission.

While some Seoul nightclubs and bars were temporarily re-shuttered, the government has stood by its decision to ease restrictions by reopening offices, public facilities and sports centres, reports Reuters. Despite the reopenings, daily infections remain under 50 a day (for comparison, the still-locked-down UK, which has only 15 million more people than South Korea’s 51.6m, is still reporting more than 3,000 daily cases).

“For now, we will monitor how the current transmissions go and review [at a later date] whether we should reconsider our distancing policy,” said Kim Gang-lip at a media briefing today (13 May).

Live entertainment began to return to Korea in March, after the January–February peak in infections, at a time when much of the western world was still formulating its response to the growing pandemic.

“For now, we will monitor how the current transmissions go and review whether we should reconsider”

Key to South Korea’s success in getting the coronavirus under control is its robust programme of testing and tracing, which experts believe could provide a model for other countries to restart their economies while keeping their citizens safe. Kim also said today there will be no return to social distancing while authorities can trace at least 95% of infections.

According to the Guardian, “by the time the World Health Organization issued its plea in mid-March for countries to “test, test, test”, South Korea had spent weeks doing just that, quickly developing the capability to test an average of 12,000 people – and sometimes as many as 20,000 – a day at hundreds of drive-through and walk-in testing centres. The mobile centres conducted the tests free of charge within 10 minutes, with the results were sent to people’s phones within 24 hours. By mid-March more than 270,000 people had been tested.”

Outside Korea, several European countries and US states have set a timetable for reopening entertainment and hospitality venues, although all still include some form of social distancing – Dutch proposals to allow venues a maximum of 30 people, including staff, provided they remain 1.5 metres apart, for example, have been dismissed as especially unworkable.

The Event Safety Alliance, which recently released a ‘reopening guide’ for entertainment venues, describes how some countries are “using contract tracing to enable health authorities to track who has been to an event or location if an outbreak flares up. They are then contacted and instructed to seek medical advice.”

Privacy advocates in Japan and South Korea have been critical of those countries’ use of emergency powers to snoop on citizens

This enables venues to reopen more safely, knowing that any outbreaks can be isolated and contained, though only South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Australia (which is tracking the virus using its COVIDsafe app), currently have the capability to do so, according to the guide. Additionally, “some societies are more tolerant of the perceived impact on personal liberty than others”, it warns.

Privacy advocates in Japan and South Korea have been critical of those countries’ use of emergency powers to snoop on citizens, according to the Japan Times, where virus carriers’ contacts are “aggressively traced” using tools like GPS tracking on smartphones, credit card records and CCTV. “People’s movements before they were diagnosed are published on websites and relayed via smartphone alerts to inform others whether they have crossed paths with a carrier,” the paper adds.

While Korea-style contact tracing could provide the answer to reopening venues safely – and when faced with a choice between privacy invading contact tracing and socially distanced shows with 30 people, the latter arguably looks more appealing – not everyone is convinced.

Germany – whose testing and tracking regime is the envy of much of Europe – has warned it could reimpose lockdown after a rise in Covid-19 cases last week. “We always have to be aware that we are still at the beginning of the pandemic,” said chancellor Angela Merkel, “and there’s still a long way in dealing with this virus in front of us.”


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