Coronavirus: South Korea continues to see cluster outbreaks despite strict social distancing

New infections were found mostly in Seoul, despite a strict social distancing policy being extended indefinitely. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - First, it was an outbreak of the coronavirus in Seoul's nightclub district. Then, cluster infections detected at a logistics centre, a door-to-door sales company targeting the elderly, a ping pong club, a car enthusiast club gathering near the Han River, and the latest, an overnight church camp, followed.

South Korea, despite its initial success in flattening the infection curve in March due to massive testing and aggressive contact tracing, has been plagued by sporadic outbreaks of the virus since early May, most notably in confined indoor spaces.

New infections were found mostly in Seoul, despite a strict social distancing policy being extended indefinitely. This means all public facilities, such as museums and libraries, remain closed.

Health authorities have also urged against complacency and appealed to people to avoid dining in restaurants and participating in social gatherings.

South Korea has yet to impose a lockdown, insisting that openness and transparency are key in fighting the virus.

Mask-wearing has become a habit in the conformist nation, and masks are mandatory on all forms of public transport.

High-risk facilities such as nightclubs, bars, movie theatres and even funeral halls now require visitors to scan quick-response (QR) codes containing their personal data before entry.

Yet the daily increase in cases shows no sign of abating.

South Korea on Saturday (June 27) reported 51 new cases, out of which 31 are local. The total tally now stands at 12,653, with the death toll remaining at 282.

Health authorities have warned that Seoul and greater Seoul, home to half of the nation's 50-million population, are already in the second wave of the dreaded pandemic.

There are now 1,284 cases in Seoul and 1,167 cases in Gyeonggi province, which surrounds the capital. Both regions reported 17 new cases each on Saturday.

Seoul is now the third most affected region, after south-eastern city Daegu (6,904) and the nearby North Gyeongsang province (1,387), while Gyeonggi is fourth.

South Korea's first wave of the virus, which peaked with 909 cases on Feb 29, was largely traced to the Daegu branch of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

The latest cluster is also linked to a religious organisation - Wangsung Church located in south-western Seoul.

At least 16 infections have been traced to the church, since a 31-year-old woman first tested positive on Wednesday (June 24) after attending choir activities and an overnight church camp. A temporary testing site was set up at the church to facilitate testing of its 1,700 members.

So far the largest cluster in Seoul has been linked to the Itaewon clubbing district (139 cases), followed by the door-to-door health product retailer Richway, which organises events such as seminars and talks targeting the elderly (116). A table tennis club reported 44 cases, while an Internet cafe had 28 cases.

Experts warned that the number of daily cases could grow to 800 in a month's time, given the high reproduction number of 1.79. This refers to the average number of people infected by a confirmed patient.

Untraceable cases account for 11.5 per cent of the total.

Meanwhile, the growing number of imported cases - 20 alone on Saturday - has also sparked concern.

South Korea has imposed visa and flight restrictions on Pakistan and Bangladesh after a spike in infections from these two countries.

Separately, 17 infections found on board two Russian ships docked in southern port city Busan have prompted health authorities to tighten entry requirements at seaports.

Ms Jeong Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday (June 22) that the second wave had been predicted to emerge in fall or winter, but it came earlier than expected.

"As long as people are having close contact with others, we believe that infections will continue," she said.

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