Covid-19 surge in Asia: Fourth wave looms in South Korea

People wearing face masks walk around Namdaemun market in Seoul, South Korea, on April 12, 2021.
People wearing face masks walk around Namdaemun market in Seoul, South Korea, on April 12, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - As the months drag on and Covid-19 infection figures rebound despite more curbs being imposed, student Lee Sun-young is starting to lose heart in the fight against the coronavirus in South Korea.

"I am tired of all the Covid restrictions, especially mask wearing and the ban on overseas travel," the 25-year-old told The Straits Times.

"I'm still worried about Covid but as the weather gets warmer, it seems everyone, not just myself, is neglecting quarantine measures. That is a big problem," she added.

Pandemic fatigue is growing as South Korea grapples with a looming fourth wave of Covid-19 since the first cases emerged in February last year.

On Wednesday (April 14), the country reported 731 new Covid-19 cases - the highest since Jan 7 - bringing the total tally to 111,419.

Cluster infections have popped up everywhere despite tightened social distancing curbs including a ban on social gatherings of over four people since last December.

More than 430 cases were traced to a cluster at a pub in south-eastern port city Busan, while 26 cases were linked to a group of family and friends in neighbouring Ulsan.

In Seoul, four indoor gyms accounted for 142 cases, while a music class gave rise to 12.

Concern is also growing over the spread of the coronavirus in educational facilities. There were 95 cases in a cram school in the central city of Daejeon and seven cases in a school in Daegu in the south-east.

Health officials have warned of tougher restrictions if infections show no sign of slowing down.

The daily average number of new cases stood at 628 over the past week - much higher than the 300-plus range last month as the third wave started subsiding.

Clubs and pubs in Seoul and Busan were closed again from Monday as part of tightened curbs. A nationwide ban on dining at restaurants and cafes after 10pm remains in place, and indoor sports facilities have to close at the same time.

Senior health official Yoon Tae-ho said officials will consider adjusting the country's social distancing scheme and business hour restrictions after "closely monitoring the situation this week".

"There seems to be more evidence that people have let their guard down," he told a briefing on Wednesday. "People can relax, but the virus is tireless and indiscriminate."

South Korea's vaccination programme is also progressing slowly, fuelling fears that the country will fail to achieve its target of herd immunity by November.

A total of 1,239,065 people have received their first shots since Feb 26, when the programme was rolled out, accounting for only 2.38 per cent of the population.

Some 300,000 people received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the rest were given AstraZeneca's shot. Only about 60,000 people have received the second Pfizer dose.

The Bloomberg vaccine tracker shows that it would take six years and four months for South Korea to achieve herd immunity if it continues to administer the vaccine to only an average of 32,500 people a day - significantly lower than the 3.2 million a day in the United States and 400,000 in Britain.

Experts attribute the slow progress to the lack of vaccines in the country, given a global shortage, the government's delay in securing them and a shortage of vaccination centres.