Korea Won't Become a Covid Hell like Germany. Here Is Why
Alarming reports in foreign media about Korea's Covid situation don't take into consideration the country's strengths vis-à-vis Europe.
"We are in a national emergency," said German health minister Jens Spahn at a recent press conference to address the skyrocketing number of new Covid infections.
If you look at the data, Spahn's words don't come across as an exaggeration.
On Nov. 18 Germany had almost 59,000 new cases nationwide. In some parts of the country the seven-day incidence rate is already higher than 1,000.
Germany is no exception in Europe. The Netherlands saw almost 24,000 new cases on Nov. 18. Austria will go into another lockdown starting Monday because the seven-day incidence rate in the whole country is over 1,000.
A week ago I flew to Germany from Korea where I had just spent a month, and the contrast between the two countries cannot be starker.
Countless restaurants in Seoul's busy Gangnam district were densely packed at lunch time. Subway trains were full during rush hour. It was hard to book hotel rooms for a weekend getaway in popular destinations, not because hotels were closed, but because I was competing against many other holiday makers.
In spite of all this, the number of daily new cases hovered around or far below 2,000 throughout the month of October. Only on Nov. 1 did the Korean government put the country back on the path to normalcy. Even then the daily new case figure remains below 3,500 three weeks into this new phase (the seven-day incidence rate in the second week of November was 30, although it has risen since then to 35).
I am a well-known Korea skeptic, and I am not easily impressed with what the country does most of the time. But even I find it difficult not be a little in awe.
That's why the breathless tone foreign-language media outlets are adopting in describing the 'worsening' Korean situation strikes me as alarmist.
(The Washington Post, "South Korea loosened covid rules after massive vaccine uptake. Now cases and hospitalizations are surging"; Reuters, "S.Korea reports record new COVID-19 cases as serious infections cause worry".)
They are right to point out that Covid-related deaths are rising slightly. On Wednesday the number of Covid patients hospitalized for help with breathing surpassed the 500-mark for the first time.
But Korea doesn't face threats like Europe, which dropped most Covid-related restrictions much earlier on the basis of relatively high vaccination rates and is now losing control of the situation.
Lockdown to Freedom Versus No Lockdown to No Lockdown
Yes, Korea has also adopted the decision to live "With Corona" starting this month (that's the actual name of this new policy).
With some 79 percent of the population fully vaccinated, Korea would no longer attempt to curb all infection. It has become clear that having zero Covid case is impossible, not with the highly contagious Delta variant around.
That's where similarities stop, however.
When European countries started lifting restrictions this summer, the change was abrupt. From being in lockdown for months, people could suddenly go out, eat in restaurants and travel for vacation. In both Germany (where I live much of the year) and France (where I will soon have a second home) there was a feeling that people had been starved for normal life and contact with others, and they acted accordingly, filling up the streets often without masks or social distancing.
In Korea, the transition from restrictions to partial-opening on Nov. 1 was far more gradual because there never had been a full lockdown. Until the end of October most businesses were in fact open, closing only at 10 pm. Now just about everything in Korea is allowed to open as late as its owner wants. A notable exception is bars and clubs, which are restricted to midnight closing for the moment.
(The complete guideline, in Korean, can be found on the Ministry of Health and Welfare website.)
Many friends in Seoul are excited about being able to meet in large gatherings of up to 10 people—until Oct. 31 the limit in the capital and the surrounding area was four—but overall the new rules did not mark a major shift.
Much has already been made of vaccine hesitancy in some European countries, for a good reason. The full vaccination rate in Germany, now a global Covid hotspot, has plateaued at 68 percent for weeks. Korea, despite starting its vaccination campaign in earnest two months after Germany did (due to a supply shortage), is looking at a full vaccination rate of 78.6 percent, even if the speed has slowed down.
Germany attempted to encourage more vaccination by making the so-called 3G (recovered, tested, or vaccinated) rule the centerpiece of its "return to normalcy" policy. That means proving one's covid-free status through a recovery certificate, a recent test, or a proof of vaccination before being allowed to engage in many activities.
But there have been reports about forged vaccination certificates, and enforcement is questionable.
I for one laugh when I visit a restaurant in Germany because I wonder if it's really enough for a server to glance at a QR code on my phone for two seconds to determine if it's valid or not. The QR code can be scanned, but I can count only a handful of times when mine actually was since I got it late July.
France is a different story, and my French pass sanitaire ("health passport"—an app that contains my vaccination record) has seen vigorous use in Paris.
While some German establishments demand that one check in by using a privately developed app called Luca, it has been shown to be vulnerable to easy manipulation, and it cannot actually verify that the personal details one provides are true.
In Korea one must check into a host of businesses and cultural institutions using one of three ways: scanning a unique QR code (downloadable on KakaoTalk, search portal Naver and a telecom company app using one's personal account, which in turn is linked to one's verified identity), calling a check-in phone number specific to the restaurant (so that your number gets stored in the database), or writing down one's personal details—not verified on the spot, to be sure—which not many people do given the convenience of the two alternatives.
This shows that Korea gathers sufficient information to enable contact-tracing in case of a confirmed infection, in addition to having other data such mobile phone signals, credit card transaction records and CCTV footage.
Germany not so much.
One way the German system tries to track Covid is by relying on regular testing in schools (when you know children have it, you can test the families), but here, too, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the approach. Just this Friday it was reported that the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg actually had no record of how many students have tested positive. In the northeastern state of Brandenburg (which surrounds Berlin) children were made to do 10-day home quarantine after testing positive in school, only to be sent back to class before recovering. You can imagine what happened afterward, with hordes of unhappy children having to also go into quarantine as a result.
The responsibility for this work falls on local Gesundheitsämter (health offices), which have complained of being overwhelmed since the beginning of the pandemic and now say "intensive and extensive contact-tracing is no longer possible given the current situation".
During my recent stay in Korea I had to visit two different health offices in Seoul for mandatory covid tests, and my calls about the results were answered even in the evening after 8 pm and on weekends (once I was even told to call at night because they "work around the clock").
What Happens on Testing Positive
The protocol in Korea is clear: positive cases are sorted according to the severity of symptoms. Until October home quarantine was not allowed for any one testing positive. Those with moderate to severe symptoms are hospitalized, and the rest with vague or no symptoms get admitted to one of "living treatment facilities" for quarantine and monitoring.
In Germany, this guideline from the state of Baden-Württemberg notes that those who test positive must do home quarantine for 10 days, and that the local health office "will possibly (möglicherweise) make contact with you".
Korea is famous for enforcing quarantine by having individuals download a location-tracking app (but only for the duration of the quarantine).
In Germany the quarantine is compulsory but enforcement capability was simply never there.
As if that wasn't enough, Germany and Korea are miles apart when it comes to mask-wearing.
As rules differ from one German state to another so it cannot be generalized, but in Baden-Württemberg as of Oct. 27 mask-wearing is required except when at home, and outside with the possibility of maintaining a minimum distance of 1.5 meter from another person. Another exception is at businesses where visitors, customers and workers in contact with people from outside are vaccinated. But the mask mandate is not a new thing. Since last year passengers on public transit had to wear masks, and most businesses have signs that wearing it is required for entry.
The problem in Germany is one of compliance.
Earlier this week I had to visit a local police station where not a single officer (three in an enclosed room) was wearing a mask despite sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and freely moving around the room (one even kept on sneezing several times to my definite cringe). I went to a private company and also saw five employees, not a single one with a mask on. And just forget about people on the street (although compliance is very high on supermarket parking lots for reasons I will never understand)—even in extremely crowded shopping districts barefaced pedestrians have been too many to count.
In Korea it's rare to see people without masks in public, whether inside or on the street, except when they are eating, drinking or smoking. Even though there is no actual rule that one must wear a mask outdoor "unless one cannot maintain at least two meters from the next person", it's rare that anyone freely walks around without one on.
(An American friend in Seoul since this summer complains that he feels like he cannot take his mask off anywhere when outside his apartment, so he goes to a nearby mountain and finds a spot in the middle of a forest without anyone before doing so.)
What Happens Going Forward
Even with Germany's laissez-faire approach to Covid management, sporadic anti-government demonstrations have taken place throughout the course of the pandemic, and some Germans are starting to see that individual behavior is to blame for the current situation. While announcing new restrictions to combat the surge in infection, premier Michael Kretschmer of Sachsen, currently the worst-affected state in Germany, said, "Freedom without responsibility is called selfishness."
But will that comment change how people act or make up for the systemic failings? It's telling that in the federal election this summer the Freie Demokraten (FDP) won big and took in 11.5 percent of the votes, mainly by questioning the government's attempts at containing the Covid crisis as infringement on fundamental freedoms (the ultra-rightwing AFD, formerly a single-issue, anti-immigration party, was another choice for voters skeptical about the dangers of the virus and won 10.3 percent).
In Korea, too, there has been grumbling about the long pandemic, and the government's handling of it has been far from perfect. The various restrictions on large gatherings and operating hours have decimated many small businesses because state subsidy has been insufficient. Go to tourism-dependent neighborhoods of Seoul like Insa-dong and Myeong-dong and some back streets do not have a single open shop. Personal bankruptcy filings are on the increase.
Had the Korean government thought earlier about ordering vaccines, the campaign could have started much earlier.
But Germany now stands at a brink, and it's hard to imagine Korea will end up in this position given its strengths. Some German medical experts are warning that the newly announced measures to restrict access to public life for the unvaccinated won't be enough, and more vaccination might not break the latest wave of infections. The case numbers are already just too high.
It will be a long bleak winter. In Korea there is still hope.
Cover: Myeong-dong, Seoul (credit: Korea.kr, Creative Commons license)