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South Korean Health officials have warned residents to take the current restrictions seriously as the country faces the possibility of entering its first possible lockdown since the start of the pandemic amid an alarming rise in new infections.
South Korea has long been considered a model country for its effective response to multiple waves of coronavirus, winning praise from the World Health Organization earlier this year after authorities successfully stopped the spread of the initial outbreak.
Seoul, South Korea
A park is recorded for social distancing measures and a coronavirus precaution in Seoul, South Korea, on December 16, 2020. (AP)

Despite being among the first countries affected by the virus, South Korea has managed to avoid the kind of strict lockdown measures seen in other parts of the world, thanks in large part to a combination of aggressive testing and sophisticated monitoring techniques. and tracking.

But as the pandemic drags on into winter, the emergence of the so-called “third wave” has resulted in a seemingly untraceable increase in new infections.

On Wednesday, senior health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho urged people to fully participate in social distancing measures in the Seoul metropolitan area, which accounts for about half of the country’s 51 million inhabitants. . Those restrictions are currently at level 2.5 on the country scale, and level 3 is a de facto lockdown.

Yoon said officials are currently consulting with experts, local governments, and the antivirus working committee on whether to raise the restrictions to level 3.

Such a move would likely constitute “a huge social change,” Yoon warned, and could result in harm to small businesses and the self-employed.

On Tuesday, South Korea reported 1,078 new cases, the highest daily count since the start of the pandemic, bringing the national total to 45,442. Some 226 patients are in critical condition, while there were 12 additional deaths Tuesday, bringing the total deaths to 612.

On Wednesday, Seoul’s acting mayor Seo Jung-hyup warned that the capital is facing a critical shortage of hospital space, with 77 of the city’s 78 ICU beds now occupied by coronavirus patients.

While these numbers pale in comparison to those seen in much of Europe or the United States, the latest increase demonstrates the additional hardships caused by freezing winter temperatures, which drive people indoors, where infection is easier, and increasing fatigue from restrictions and precautions. .

According to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, cases in South Korea have risen steadily since mid-November, and the country has been slowly enacting more restrictions and social distancing rules in response.

Seoul, South Korea
The silhouette of a man wearing a face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus passes in front of a construction site in Seoul, South Korea, on December 16, 2020. (AP)

Last week, the military and police were called in to help with contact tracing efforts, while testing centers extended their hours into the evening and on weekends to encourage testing in the Seoul metropolitan area. In a briefing announcing new efforts, a senior South Korean health official warned that the country is facing its “biggest crisis” yet.

Level 3 restrictions could force schools and churches to move their operations online. Earlier this year, multiple outbreaks in South Korea were linked to religious groups, with some leading anti-government protests as authorities tried to enforce social distancing measures.

According to the public broadcaster KBS, at least one group in Seoul has linked to a church.

“The church held meetings four times a week for seven weeks in a confined space for an extended period of time, which means that the possibility of droplets spreading between participants was very high,” Park Yoo-mi told KBS. , a local health official. “We are investigating the matter further.”

Winter was long expected to bring a spike in cases across much of the Northern Hemisphere, but particularly in countries where temperatures are lower: increased ventilation, which can help prevent infection, is much more difficult when temperatures Average daytime temperatures are below -5 ° C as in Seoul this week.

Speaking on Tuesday, Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Disease Prevention and Control Agency, said that “the third wave is different from the previous two. It is the most critical point since the COVID-19 pandemic began. “.

Seoul, South Korea
Medical workers transport a coronavirus-infected patient to an ambulance at an elderly care facility in Ulsan, South Korea, on December 7, 2020. (AP)
In the neighbor, and equally cold, Japan, restrictions have also been increased in response to a new wave of cases.

On Tuesday, 2,410 new cases and 45 deaths were recorded across Japan, bringing the respective totals to 184,754 cases and 2701 deaths. The number of patients in intensive care is at its highest level for the entire year, health officials warned.

Japan has also largely avoided the kind of strict blockades seen elsewhere, opting for intensive border controls, contact tracing, and social distancing – an experiment that has met with great success. But the large amount of time that citizens have been living with even minor restrictions (East Asia was the first region in the world to deal with the coronavirus, and precautions were taken as of January this year) runs the risk of fatigue.

“Please don’t get used to the coronavirus,” said the president of the Japan Medical Association Toshio Nakagawa. said in a briefing last month, as the cases began to increase. “Please don’t underestimate the coronavirus.”

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