In Korea, a Spike in Covid Case meets a collective shrug

SEOUL – South Korea reported the highest daily number of coronavirus infections of the entire pandemic on Thursday, recording 621,328 cases in a country of 50 million people.

This is the second day in a row that the country has set a record, during a week of increasing Omicron cases, surpassing all previous waves, one in 20 people tested positive in seven. past day.

But in this surge, South Korea, which has responded to previous outbreaks with an all-out effort to trace, test and isolate those infected, is responding with a shrug. collective.

With the majority of the adult population vaccinated and about nine out of ten people aged 60 and over getting a booster shot, South Korea is pushing ahead with plans to ease social distancing measures, relax border restrictions, and ease restrictions. world and learn to live with the risk of the virus, even as it experiences some of the highest infection rates per person anywhere in the world.

Lee Soo-won, a bartender who owns two cocktail bars in central Seoul, said: “People often hide about being infected, like you are causing trouble. “Now we’re congratulating everyone on getting super immunity.”

He added: “Cognition is like having a cold.”

That represents a significant change from how South Korea responded to any spike in cases during the first two years of the pandemic.

Then, even as the increase in cases eased compared with other parts of the world – a few hundred cases a day, or even a few dozen – the streets of the country were empty and officials summoned hold emergency meetings to impose curfews or restrict gatherings.

Throughout the pandemic, the South Korean government has touted its aggressive and sometimes invasive approach to the virus, calling its book “the K-isolation model” and encouraging other countries to do the same. according to.

Now, the government says it is moving from severe restrictions to letting the virus travel through the population, in an effort to allow small businesses to recover and life to return to normal.

On Friday, officials will meet to discuss further easing of social distancing restrictions, under which businesses must close by 11 p.m. and no more than six people can gather inside. House. On April 1, the country plans to start allowing vaccinated travelers to enter without quarantine.

“There is no more patience,” said Jang Young-ook, a researcher at the Korea Institute of International Economic Policy. “There is an exaggerated degree of risk associated with the virus to get everyone’s cooperation.” “But that partnership is a kind of resource, and it’s been wasted and exhausted,” he added.

The latest spike has barely affected data showing people’s visits to retail stores, when previous visits in 2020 had fallen by a third or more, said Jang.

Kim Jin-ah, 28, a Seoul resident who works at a department store, said she fluctuates between feeling scared about the virus around her – her father recently tested positive – and resigned herself to the fact that she could get sick sooner or later, and that her risk of becoming seriously ill was low.

On the one hand, she says she fears she will no longer be able to dine or travel if the increase leads to the government reimposing restrictions. “I’m afraid our daily lives might evaporate,” Kim said.

But she said she also thinks South Korea has neglected measures against the virus early on, including vaccination. “I was worried that things could turn into a situation that looked like a disaster movie,” she said.

There are also South Korean medical experts, who fear South Koreans’ attitude to the virus could overwhelm their hospitals, especially as many medical workers are infected. more sick.

Eom Joongsik, an infectious disease specialist at Gachon University’s Gil Medical Center in Incheon, said he and his colleagues have been mentally preparing for the next several weeks as the entire latest round of surgery is planned. Ants will flock to their emergency rooms and intensive care units. He said he also worries about the impact on other serious illnesses if the health system is stretched. Officials said Thursday that 65.6% of their critical care beds are full.

In Mr. Eom’s view, the time for the government to take a new approach to the virus is over.

“The decision to relax measures could be made after we have passed our peak,” he said.

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