SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Starting Monday (July 12), South Korea implemented its toughest social distancing rules in the Greater Seoul area, which includes Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, as the Covid-19 pandemic began its fourth wave.
Under Level 4 rules, private gatherings of more than two people are banned after 6 pm for two weeks. Weddings and funerals can only be joined by relatives. Entertainment establishments, including nightclubs, were ordered to shut down, while restaurants were allowed to have dine-in customers until 10 pm. The Greater Seoul area effectively was placed under a quasi-lockdown.
For the moment, it is an urgent priority to minimize face-to-face contact, wear masks, wash hands frequently and ventilate indoor spaces appropriately as instructed by the government.
People followed the Covid-19 guidelines for about a year and a half, enduring inconvenience and economic damage, yet a dire situation has happened again. The primary responsibility for that falls on the government.
When the spread of the virus showed signs of slowing down, the government relaxed and signaled that the crisis was "just about over." That misjudgment had already led to surges in case numbers, and the same is true of the looming fourth wave.
Last month the government announced vaccination incentives, gave prior notice of its plans to ease social distancing, and unveiled plans to boost consumption. These were signs of miscalculation.
Its rash judgment only made the situation worse, and now its follow-up measures are lacking.
Though swimmers do not wear masks, they can use the shower rooms at public swimming pools while users of other indoor sports facilities cannot. This is despite having to work out with masks on.
No more than two passengers can ride in the same taxi after 6 pm, but people can use crowded subways and other public transportation. Even the maximum speed of fitness center treadmills was restricted, to 6 kilometers per hour. The guidelines lack scientific evidence and balance.
In a Covid-19 meeting on Monday, President Moon Jae-in again called "K-quarantine measures" the most effective response and urged people to tough it out. There was no mention of how to secure more vaccines.
There is a limit to how much the people can endure during this new wave of infections. Vaccination must proceed without a glitch. For the present, following the emergency rules is a shortcut to prevent the situation from getting worse, but the ultimate escape lies in inoculation.
Yet on the day when Level 4 rules went into force, the authorities suspended vaccination reservations for people aged 55 to 59 after the vaccine supply for that age group was exhausted. The reservations were supposed to be for Sept 12-17, but the entire stockpile was reserved on the first day.
The authorities revealed belatedly that 1.85 million of the 3.52 million people aged 55 to 59 had reserved appointments. In effect, the government made people compete for reservations on a first-come, first-served basis without knowing that vaccine supplies were insufficient. People feel they were fooled.
The government invited distrust and yet it says it is important to follow Level 4 rules for a "brief though strenuous" time. People cannot but ask Cheong Wa Dae and the government, particularly Moon's top Covid-19 aide, what they did as the fourth wave was looming.
Moon created a new position, presidential secretary for disease control and prevention affairs, and named Ki Mo-ran, a professor of preventive medicine at the National Cancer Center, to that post on April 16.
From the beginning, her qualifications were called into question. When other countries secured vaccines competitively, she argued that there was no need for Korea to rush to purchase vaccines. Before her appointment, she had proposed changes to the social distancing system, suggesting one with four levels instead of five, and drafted the current Level 4 guidelines. Her recommendations probably had a great impact on the government's response.
Moon created the post for Ki even though the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency commissioner was performing her duties well. One must ask whether he created a superfluous post.
Self-employed small-business owners, who have to bear the brunt of the losses due to the Level 4 rules, are boiling with rage. But no one in the government has taken responsibility.
What went wrong in its response and where the responsibility lies must be clarified.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.