Life as we know it in much of the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus. But two countries have been widely held up as examples of how to handle a pandemic: South Korea and Germany.
Their approaches were markedly different — but each is now in the enviable position of being able to ease restrictions imposed to quash the spread of coronavirus with some confidence that infections won’t immediately spike again.So how are they preparing to return to “normal” life? In one word: Cautiously.
And those watching enviously from other countries may notice that much remains far from normal.South Korea — which in February had the largest outbreak outside of China — used a combination of widespread testing, aggressive contact tracing, stern public health measures and digital technology to contain the coronavirus without having to impose a widespread lockdown. It also maintained a strict quarantine regime.
Thanks to these measures, newly diagnosed cases have slowed to a trickle and the national death toll stood at 256 as of Friday, according to its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Against that backdrop, the South Korean government on Wednesday started to relax its strict social distancing rules, imposed on March 22, but only in line with a set of guidelines referred to as the “distancing in daily life” policy.
According to these guidelines, people should stay at home if they become sick with suspected Covid-19 symptoms, continue to keep a distance of 2 meters (6 feet) from others, wash their hands for 30 seconds and keep rooms well ventilated and disinfected regularly.
Those aged over 65 and in high-risk groups should continue to stay home and avoid enclosed and crowded spaces.As the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated, the policy “should not be interpreted as implying a return to ‘normalcy’ as before the outbreak but rather as an effort to achieve both infectious disease prevention/control and everyday life.”
In line with this, South Korea’s baseball season resumed Tuesday — but with games played in empty stadiums, while umpires and base coaches wore masks. In one game, instead of the ceremonial first pitch, there was a socially distant start as a boy in a big clear balloon walked from the mound to the catcher.Children will start to return to school from May 13.
Speaking Monday, South Korean education minister Yoo Eun-Hae told students what to expect in this new, post-coronavirus reality. “As soon as you arrive at a class, you will need to wipe your desk while windows should be opened frequently,” she said.
“You will also be required to wear a mask except for at mealtimes and maintain double arm’s length distance when you are on the move or are standing in line. You must remember these rules and we urge you to keep them.”
South Korea’s Prime Minister Chung Sye-Kyun told a briefing Sunday that closed facilities would reopen gradually and that events and gatherings would be allowed as long as they abide by disinfection guidelines.
“It is so refreshing and stress-relieving to finally be out,” Ju Eun-song, a 32-year-old store sales assistant, told AFP news agency as the restrictions were eased Wednesday.
“As we wrap up social distancing, we’re at a stage where people are getting used to daily life distancing,” Jo Jae-hong, a 38-year-old businessman, told the news agency. But the emergence Friday of more than a dozen new cases linked to an individual who visited three nightclubs in Seoul last weekend served as a warning of how quickly the virus can regain a foothold. Officials swiftly advised clubs and bars to close for the next month.
Dr. Peter Drobac, a global health expert at the Oxford Saïd Business School, believes that other governments’ experiences indicate that a cautious approach is the right one.”There’s no strict recipe that will work elsewhere, but there is a set of principles,” he told CNN by email. “First, flatten the curve — or better still, crush the curve — until there is a sustained decrease in new cases. Opening up when you still have uncontrolled community spread, as in parts of the US, is lunacy.”Secondly, he said, countries must make sure their health system can cope without crisis measures and that health care workers have the necessary protective equipment; thirdly, massive testing capacity must be in place.”Fourth, contact tracing — which requires people and technology — and a plan to isolate cases and quarantine contacts. Isolation should not be done at home! That’s where the most transmission happens. I don’t understand why this is being ignored in the UK and the US.”Lastly, high-risk and vulnerable groups must be protected, he said, as people’s renewed mobility increases the risk of new infections.”The key to reopening is to offset that risk with testing, tracing, and isolation,” he said. “These are tried and true interventions that break chains of transmission. It doesn’t mean you can get back to normal, but it increases the chances that you can start to open up safely.”Other countries can learn a lot from South Korea, he said.”It’s easy to talk about ‘test, trace, isolate’ but hard to do. When you look at the robustness of South Korea’s response, it’s a terrific set of lessons that can be replicated,” Drobac said. “The other important factor in South Korea appears to be transparent communication and public trust. It’s going to be harder in places where the response was mismanaged or politicized, like the US and UK.”