For over a year, while the rest of the world struggled with devastating waves of COVID-19, South Korea did amazingly well. While countries like France or the UK had twenty, thirty, or even over a hundred thousand cases a day, South Korea rarely went over 2,000. But things changed in 2022, and now South Korea — along with several other previous success stories — is experiencing its first big pandemic wave.
The latest figures in South Korea come after health authorities have eased most quarantine restrictions across the country — notably, the country has stopped proof of vaccination or negative tests for adults entering crowded spaces. The government is also giving up on asking people to show a digital COVID pass requirement to enter nightclubs and other large-scale events.
“We anticipate the number of (serious or critical cases) to grow to around 2,000. We are preparing our medical response for that,” the senior Health Ministry official Park Hyang said during a briefing.
The number of cases in one day zoomed past 600,000, an over 100-fold increase from levels seen in mid-January when Omicron emerged as the dominant strain. It’s a stunning record for a country of around 52 million people, though it should also be said that South Korea also tests more than many other nations currently do.
However, since more than 62% of South Koreans have received booster shots, and almost 90% of the population is vaccinated, the country managed to weather the storm — although the number of severe cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities are still increasing. South Korea’s policy of tight restrictions to eliminate the virus seems to be crumbling in the face of the incredibly contagious Omicron.
Although South Korea never really adopted “zero Covid” policy, it used aggressive tracking, tracing, and quarantines to keep new cases as low as possible.
Other countries in Asia are facing similar problems.
Singapore is also in a similar situation. The city-state did have a large wave in the autumn of 2021, but the ongoing wave is way worse. Vietnam and Hong Kong are also experiencing their first truly overwhelming waves of the pandemic.
Vietnam had draconic restrictions for almost two years and kept its borders mostly closed. Now, the country has scrapped quarantine and travel restrictions for foreign visitors, but the reopening of the country comes as the country has over 175,000 cases a day.
In Hong Kong, as the wave appears to be finally decreasing, morgues are overflowing and there are almost no coffins left, even as 85% of the population has at least one vaccination dose. However, unlike South Korea, only a minority of its population is boosted (28%). Having had very low levels of infections and deaths throughout the pandemic, Hong Kong is now experiencing a dramatic surge.
In Singapore, the vaccination campaign was focused overwhelmingly on mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna), while South Korea focused on Pfizer and AstraZeneca, Hong Kong had Pfizer and Sinopharm, and Vietnam had half mRNA vaccines and half Sinopharm/AstraZeneca. So it’s unlikely to be a case of one vaccine not holding up (although differences between individual vaccines are still possible). Instead, researchers say that this goes to show just how virulent the Omicron strain is — especially as a new variant, 30% more contagious than the original Omicron, seems to be emerging.
Vaccination is still our way out of the pandemic, and thanks to vaccination, the number of hospitalizations and fatalities remains much, much lower than what it would have been otherwise — but the virus remains dangerous and the pandemic is not nearly over.
The tight lockdown Zero Covid strategy employed by several countries, which saw great success in the previous stages of the pandemic, no longer seems to be a viable option. However, you could argue that the strategy has already achieved its most important goal: delaying the onslaught until the vast majority of the population is vaccinated. The most dangerous stage of the pandemic has passed — but as we can see from these countries, the danger is not over.