The South Korean government is scrambling to contain a new cluster of Covid-19 cases less than a week after it lifted its social distancing guidelines. The government has identified 94 new cases – including 35 new cases Monday, 11 May, the most in a single day since early April – linked to a single infected individual who visited several nightclubs in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul on the evening of 1 May. The new cluster, which comes after South Korea had zero cases of domestic transmission for several days and as the country was preparing to reopen schools this week, points to the challenges facing any government trying to resume economic and social activity.
The government is now trying to test more than 5,000 individuals who were in the same clubs as the infected man. It has tested more than 3,000 people linked to the patient, including both fellow clubgoers and his friends and family. Despite the government’s high-tech test, trace, and isolate program, however, it has struggled to make contact with more than 2,000 people. Health authorities are working with the Seoul Metropolitan Police to track down the remaining individuals. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kun has stated that there could be legal penalties for individuals who try to evade authorities.
Thus far, the Moon Jae-in administration has not reversed its decision to lift its extensive social distancing guidelines. However, municipal authorities in Seoul and other cities have ordered bars and clubs to close until further notice. More significantly, the new cluster has led the national government to delay plans to resume instruction at South Korean schools this week until next week at the earliest.
This episode shows that countries that successfully contain Covid-19 will nevertheless have to adapt to a new normal that will require constant vigilance by public authorities and ongoing self-restraint by individuals when it comes to public activity. The ease with which one person was able to expose thousands of people suggests that until a vaccine is available it is virtually inevitable that new clusters will emerge. Therefore, whether South Korea is able to contain the new outbreak is a test of whether its test, trace, and isolate program can adapt and provide continuous surveillance indefinitely, particularly if individuals are reluctant to cooperate with the government’s efforts.
For President Moon Jae-in, who marked the third anniversary of his inauguration Sunday, the new case cluster suggests that despite his ambitions to use his final two years in office to use his newly won parliamentary majority to achieve a “Korean New Deal,” for the foreseeable future combating Covid-19 will be the highest priority for his administration. Moon begins his fourth year with approval ratings over 70%, in large part due to his government’s effective crisis management, but if the administration mishandles the new cluster, his support could fade again.