SEOUL: The graphic image charting the rise in COVID-19 cases in South Korea looks like a sheer cliff - a near vertical rise that springs up from an uneven but steady ground.
The numbers tell the story of the outbreak growing only slightly for weeks, then suddenly spiking from 30 to nearly 2,000 in just several days.
The country’s total has now surpassed 5,000. Since starting that drastic increase last week, these days, South Koreans turn on the TV, or tune into a live Internet stream, twice a day for what has become a grim routine: The announcement of even more cases of the potentially deadly COVID-19. There are hundreds each day.
WAS A RELIGIOUS SECT TO BE BLAMED?
Amid a tense debate in the country, the facts of the largest COVID-19 crisis outside of China paint a picture of bad luck instead of institutional failure.
Roughly three quarters of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases are concentrated in or near the city of Daegu in the southeast. Daegu is, not incidentally, the headquarters of Shincheonji, a secretive religious sect.
Since the start of the outbreak, Shincheonji has come to unprecedented public attention, as a woman the South Korean media refer to as the country’s “super spreader” is a member, and more than half of all cases have been linked to the group.
Shincheonji has presented a perfect storm of conditions that have led to the rapid spread of COVID-19 infections. The sect holds worship ceremonies where congregants sit side-by-side on floors together for long stretches, and operates according to a code of secrecy.
Members conceal their identities and don’t reveal the fact of their membership even to their own families in some cases. Authorities said the reputed “super spreader” refused to be tested for a few days and, in that time, attended crowded worship services.
Experts have said that Shincheonji members also believe that practice of their faith grants them eternal life, and therefore members may pay less heed to the call for caution and refrain from contact in guarding against this illness.
WAS THE LACK OF A TRAVEL BAN TO BE BLAMED?
Along with Shincheonji, the government of President Moon Jae-in has also faced criticism for what some call an inadequate response to the outbreak. The core of this criticism is Moon’s decision to not enact a comprehensive travel ban on anyone seeking to enter South Korea from China.
Foreign relations have been politicised. Moon’s critics, mostly on the political right, have accused him of being beholden to Beijing and risking South Koreans’ public health as a result.
READ: Commentary: Why Japan’s move to close schools during COVID-19 outbreak upset many – and not just parents
Moon has argued that sufficient precautions are in place at all South Korea’s ports of entry. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and by keeping the border open, Moon may have been trying to lessen the damage the outbreak is causing to South Korea’s economy.
However, the consensus among public health professionals who study travel bans is that these are not effective in containing contagious illnesses, and can make things worse by fueling a sense of complacency.
There may be some kind of psychological comfort that results from cutting the country off from the place where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, but as public health experts told NPR, travel bans are inevitably implemented late, and can cause shortages of equipment and materials needed to rein in illnesses.
More effective is clearly communicating the symptoms of a spreading illness and encouraging anyone with symptoms to promptly come forward for testing.
SOUTH KOREA IS PULLING ALL STOPS TO STEM SPREAD
Even the most ardent critics of the South Korean government’s response cannot fairly accuse the state of failing on that accord.
Several times a day, every citizen’s phone buzzes with government warnings of new cases in their areas, as well as reminders of the symptoms of COVID-19 and admonitions to frequently wash one’s hands and wear a mask while outdoors.
South Korean public health authorities are carrying out massive diagnostic operations and disinfecting surfaces in most public places.
On Tuesday (Mar 3), Moon declared “war” on the coronavirus and ordered all government bodies to enter into 24-hour emergency operations to monitor and contain the virus. His government is also allocating US$25 billion to the virus response.
Another fact worth considering is that South Korea’s reported coronavirus mortality rate of 0.5 per cent is lower than expert estimates, even for cases outside China.
So to anyone who thinks the government is dropping the ball here, beyond shutting the border with China - which there is scant evidence to suggest would be effective - just what else are they expecting President Moon’s government to do?
It seems like South Korea has mostly been unlucky, with a member of a particularly opaque religious group having the misfortune of getting infected, then spreading the virus.
SOUTH KOREA IS CALMLY CONFIDENT
With some good luck, South Korea’s public health authorities will hopefully be able to rein in the spread of COVID-19.
There are potential bright sides. A journalist colleague of mine suggested the other day that, with couples spending more time at home, roughly ten months from now, we might see a spike in the number of babies born, a novel increase in South Korea’s stubbornly low birthrate.
With kids off school and parents working remotely, families are getting more uninterrupted time together. With fewer cars on the road, the capital’s hazy sky more frequently shows patches of blue.
The atmosphere on the streets of South Korean cities is one of tension, but also eerie calm. The normally noisy city of Seoul is far more subdued and less crowded than normal, as more companies allow staff to work from home and nearly all social and recreational activities are cancelled.
At a time of crisis, humans naturally seek each other’s comfort for support, but this illness has compelled many of us to remain in our homes, minimising contact with other people who are going through the same thing.
Along with worrisome announcements of new COVID-19 cases, each day brings more announcements of retrenchment of South Korea’s social and commercial life.
Sports games are being played in front of no spectators or not at all. Concerts and conferences are being cancelled.
South Koreans take pride in this country’s ability to overcome crisis. This country’s contemporary history is a tale of withstanding war and economic crises. The optimistic here will do what they’ve always done - work that much harder and carry on.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.