SEOUL – South Korea on Thursday reported the maximum daily number of coronavirus infections of the entire pandemic, with 621,328 cases in a country of 50 million people.
It was the second consecutive day the country set a record, during a week-long wave of Omicron cases that has eclipsed all previous waves, with one in 20 people testing positive in the past seven days.
But in this surge, South Korea, which has responded to the swell in the past with comprehensive efforts to locate, test and isolate the infected, has responded with a collective shrug.
With the vast majority of the adult population now vaccinated and about nine in 10 of people over 60 receiving booster vaccinations, South Korea is pushing ahead with plans to relax social distancing measures, relax border restrictions and learn to live with the risk of the virus, even as it experiences one of the highest infection rates per person anywhere in the world.
“Everyone used to be quiet about getting infected, like you were causing a nuisance,” said Lee Soo-won, a bartender who owns two cocktail bars in downtown Seoul with a long waiting list almost every night. “Now we congratulate people on gaining superimmunity.”
He added: “The perception is that it’s like getting a cold.”
That marks a dramatic shift compared to how South Korea responded to a spike in cases during the first two years of the pandemic.
Then, even as the increase in cases pales in comparison to other parts of the world — a few hundred cases a day, or even a few dozen — the country’s streets ran empty and officials called emergency meetings to call for curfews or restrictions. to be imposed at meetings.
During the pandemic, the South Korean government has touted its aggressive and sometimes invasive approach to the virus, calling its roadmap the “K quarantine model,” and encouraging other countries to follow suit.
Now the government has said it is moving away from strict restrictions on letting the virus spread through the population in an effort to allow small businesses to recover and return to normal life.
Officials will meet on Friday to discuss further easing of social distancing restrictions, which would include businesses closing at 11 p.m. and limiting more than six people to gather indoors. On April 1, the country plans to allow vaccinated travelers without quarantine.
“There is no patience anymore,” said Jang Young-ook, a researcher at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. “There was a certain amount of exaggeration of the risk of the virus getting people’s cooperation.” He added: “But that collaboration is kind of a resource, and it was wasted and depleted.”
The latest surge has barely dented the data showing people’s visits to stores, while previous waves in 2020 led to declines of a third or more, Mr. Jang.
Kim Jin-ah, 28, a Seoul resident who works in a department store, said she wavered between fearing the virus would get around her — her father recently tested positive — and resigning herself to the fact that she would sooner or later. might get later. later, and that the risk of becoming seriously ill was low.
On the one hand, she said she feared she would no longer be able to eat out or travel if the wave caused the government to impose new restrictions. “I’m afraid our daily lives would evaporate,” said Mrs. Kim.
But she also said she thought South Korea had prematurely dropped measures against the virus, including vaccine passes. “I’m concerned that things will end up in a situation that feels like a disaster movie,” she said.
South Korea’s medical professionals are also on edge, who are concerned that the turnaround in South Koreans’ attitudes towards the virus could cause hospitals to become overstretched, especially as more medical staff become infected.
Eom Joongsik, an infectious disease specialist at Gachon University Gil Medical Center in Incheon, said he and his colleagues are bracing for the coming weeks, when the most impacted by the latest wave is expected to reach their emergency and intensive care units. meet. He said he was also concerned about the implications for other serious illnesses if the medical system were to be stretched. Officials said on Thursday that 65.6 percent of intensive care beds were full.
According to Mr Eom, the government’s timing on its new approach to the virus was not right.
“The decision to relax the measures could have been taken after we are past the peak,” he said.