SEOUL - South Korea might be able to return to pre-pandemic normality in spring next year, possibly with major antivirus measures lifted, including the country's indoor masking rule, Prof Jung Ki-suk, the head of the government's Covid-19 special response committee, said during a radio interview with a local broadcasting company on Wednesday.
Prof Jung said that South Korea might be able to fully return to normality by next year, not because the virus will disappear, but as the country will be more capable of handling the virus.
But even by springtime, the government will still not declare the end of the pandemic as there would likely still be a significant number of daily infections.
When he was asked about his opinion regarding United States President Joe Biden's bold declaration that "the pandemic is over", Prof Jung said it remains early to speak of an end to the pandemic at the moment both here and abroad.
Prof Jung also made clear that South Korea would not announce an end to the pandemic before next spring, since respiratory infectious diseases tend to spread more during the winter season.
Prof Jung said the main problem following an official declaration to the end of the pandemic would be reduced access to healthcare services the government currently provides for free. People in need, in particular, could be financially burdened if the government classifies Covid-19 as an endemic disease and cuts off financial support for vaccines and other treatments.
Prof Jung noted that it would be difficult to declare the end of the pandemic at a specific moment in time as the virus will continue to exist for a longer period of time. Prof Jung said it would more involve moving into a new phase in which the country embraces the virus as one among other infectious diseases.
Regarding the possibility of completely lifting the country's outdoor mask mandate, which currently obligates mask-wearing for gatherings of 50 people or more, Prof Jung hinted that the government will consider the option soon.
"Personally, I have considered that it is safe to take off masks outdoors," Prof Jung said. He added it would be safer for people in high-risk groups to continue to wear masks, while others would not have to.
"Lifting the (outdoor mask) mandate can cause infections, but they would not be as extensive as to jeopardise the safety of the entire society, Prof Jung added.
Prof Jung said the Covid-19 response committee would discuss the current mask mandate during its meeting on Wednesday.
Prof Jung expected that the country's indoor mask mandate, however, will remain until next year.
"It is difficult to imagine taking the pandemic phase for a period longer than three years," Prof Jung said. He added that South Korea will have to utilise all possible tools, including Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, to escape the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the government's plan to protect people from the virus could enter a new phase as a local court has recently ordered compensation for a man who was diagnosed with brain diseases after receiving the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
The country's first known suit won by a plaintiff claiming compensation for side effects from a Covid-19 vaccine could encourage others to file similar lawsuits and increase resistance against vaccination.
The man, who is in his 30s, claimed that he had a fever one day after he received an AstraZeneca shot in April last year, and felt dizziness and numbness in his legs the next day.
Later, he was diagnosed with an intracerebral hemorrhage, cerebral cavernous malformation and mononeuropathy and applied for compensation of 3.62 million won (S$3,670) with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
But the KDCA declined, arguing his illness was not considered to be caused by the vaccine.
The patient filed a lawsuit against the KDCA's decision with the Seoul Administrative Court, and the court sided with him. The court said the plaintiff had no neurological symptoms or medical history relating to the illness.
The KDCA has appealed the ruling.
Currently, nine lawsuits are proceeding over compensation for adverse events after vaccination. To date, the KDCA has received 87,304 reports asking for compensation for adverse events relating to a Covid-19 vaccination, and about 74.5 per cent, or 65,031 cases, have been reviewed. THE KOREA HERALD/ASIAN NEWS NETWORK