In just over a week, South Korea has become the second largest epicenter of the spreading coronavirus epidemic after China, with known cases jumping from 51 reported cases on February 18 to 5,621 reported cases on March 4 and probably many more by the time you read this. The rapid rise in COVID-19 cases has centered around individuals associated with the Shincheonji (New Heaven and Earth) church in the southern city of Daegu, where a single woman stricken with the COVID-19 virus may have infected hundreds of fellow parishioners in mid-February.
This exponential increase in cases has resulted in steep stock market declines, the imposition of blanket travel bans, and widespread discrimination
Both the Korean public and the international community are relatively confident in the capacities and response capabilities of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the country’s public health sector following the nation’s successful weathering of an outbreak of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2015. The South Korean government has rapidly mobilized two-a-day briefings from the Korean CDC, actively provided widespread public information on the recent movements of infected individuals and given access to free and convenient COVID-19 testing, and ramped up ubiquitous public health campaigns encouraging the population to take precautionary measures such as wearing masks in public (if they believe they are at risk of spreading infection to others), frequent hand-washing, and encouraging people to avoid nonessential public gatherings.
Vigilance comes at a heavy price. The ability and willingness of the Korean government to proactively test large numbers of people who may have come into contact with the virus has resulted in a large number of cases detected in South Korea, second only to China. This exponential increase in cases resulting from efficient testing has resulted in steep stock market declines, the imposition of blanket travel bans against South Korea, and widespread discriminatory treatment of South Koreans abroad. The hope for public health is that a proactive approach will reduce the duration of the outbreak and increase the likelihood of bringing the virus under control, but damage felt in other ways may be inevitable.
Many urban restaurants and other service sector outlets in South Korea have voluntarily closed, and the public is relying on service deliveries and reducing participation in public gatherings. On March 2, the Ministry of Education announced a two week delay in the start of all schools’ new semesters and has pledged to provide an emergency childcare program in the interim. The government has actively disinfected public areas where the virus is suspected to have spread and tested tens of thousands of at-risk individuals based on their connections with or proximity to areas where there has been a risk of contact with infected individuals.
More than 700,000 people have signed a petition questioning South Korea’s decision to not close travel routes from China
Despite these measures, the South Korean government has come under withering political criticism for not taking more stringent actions to prevent the initial spread of coronavirus to South Korea such as imposition of a blanket ban on travel from China. These criticisms come just six weeks before National Assembly elections scheduled for April 15, which will now serve as a referendum on the South Korean President Moon Jae-in administration’s response to COVID-19. More than 700,000 people have signed a petition questioning the government’s decision to not close travel routes from China and more the 1,200,000 have signed a petition calling on the government to close down the religious sect that served as the original epicenter for COVID-19 transmission.
Critics of the government’s performance note that the Korean Medical Association recommended repeatedly that the government close its borders to Chinese visitors to prevent the spread of the virus in a fashion similar to the approach that the Trump administration has taken toward China. These critics suggest that Moon has prioritized positive relations with China’s President Xi Jinping and a possible Xi visit to South Korea early this year over public health, noting Moon’s assertion to Xi in a February 20 phone conversation that “the difficulties that China faces can be regarded as our own.”
These frustrations are being magnified as other countries apply strict travel restrictions on South Korea in response to the spike in COVID-19 cases in Korea. At the same time, South Korean government overtures to strictly enforce a quarantine around a city or region along the lines of the Chinese approach have also stimulated public backlash that makes enforcement of such restrictions impossible in a democratic country such as South Korea.
Prolonged dampening of economic activity might even push South Korea into an economic recession, spelling doom for the Moon administration
What effect will COVID-19 have on the Korean economy? Even prior to the virus' spread to South Korea, Korean companies such as Hyundai were temporarily shuttering domestic production of automobiles due to the unavailability of auto parts made in China and used in production in South Korean plants. Such supply chain disruptions, along with slowing domestic economic activity resulting from self-protection measures and reduced public dining and social activities, will drive the domestic economic impact of COVID-19. Prolonged dampening of economic activity might even push South Korea into an economic recession, spelling doom for the Moon administration. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, on March 4 the South Korean Ministry of Finance introduced an 11.7 trillion won stimulus package for approval at the National Assembly. It remains to be seen whether this supplementary budget will provide a sufficient cushion for the businesses and local economies affected by the outbreak.
Despite the South Korean public health sector’s relatively high capacity for response and its recent experience with similar viruses, the new coronavirus seems poised to spread further in South Korea, creating a human health disaster of unknown proportion. COVID-19 also appears poised to exact a high economic toll on the country. The biggest outstanding question is whether the Moon administration will become yet another casualty of the public health crisis catalyzed by the spread of the COVID-19.