Once a Covid success story, South Korea sweats through summer of Delta surge

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Park Eun-sun is facing the most challenging set of circumstances since going into business for herself in August of 2020.

Having kicked off Nostimo, her restaurant in southern Seoul, during the coronavirus pandemic, Park has had to work harder to attract customers who were reluctant to eat out during a public health crisis, while complying with an evolving set of social distancing mandates that dictate how many diners she can host and when she can open her doors.

Now Park is suffering through the toughest restrictions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to an ongoing flareup in cases in the South Korean capital, restaurants must close at 10pm and can only have parties of one or two patrons for dinner service.

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“Although thankfully Korea has not gone into full lockdown, our fate so far has been influenced by government policy,” Park said.

She is waiting for more of South Korea’s population to get vaccinated, a process she and many others have found frustratingly slow. “Since restaurants are still open, it would be nice if restaurant owners and employees would be higher on the priority list for the vaccine. Unfortunately this has not been the case,” she said.

In the early stages of the pandemic, South Korea for a time had the largest outbreak in the world outside China. The country drew international admiration for quickly reining in the first wave of infections through an aggressive campaign of testing and contact tracing, all without ever enacting stringent lockdown measures like mandatory business closures.

That sheen has come off, as more than a year later, South Korea is suffering through its worst wave of coronavirus infections yet, having logged 1,896 new cases on Wednesday, the country’s highest daily figure ever.


The national government, led by President Moon Jae-in is the target of public discontent, with critics accusing Moon and the ruling party of congratulating themselves on those successful early virus containment measures while failing to secure sufficient supplies of vaccines to allow a return to normal life.

South Korea currently ranks second-to-last among OECD member countries, with only 13.49% of its population fully vaccinated, and critics have argued that the government dragged its feet in rolling out the national vaccination campaign, leaving the public and small businesses to cope with near lockdown measures that have hurt the economy and quality of life.

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The government has signed deals with overseas providers to acquire AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but supply shortages and delayed shipments have caused hiccups in the rollout.

“The current situation of strict social distancing could have been avoided if the government had taken a more long-term approach,” said Shin Eui-cheol, a professor at the KAIST Graduate School of Medical Science & Engineering.

“One year ago, the number of daily cases was only about 100 and they were satisfied with that, thinking that we could just control the pandemic. They should have looked ahead and come up with a more active strategy to try to terminate the pandemic by acquiring enough vaccines much earlier,” Shin said.

Adding to the discomfort, the current virus spike is coinciding with an extreme heatwave, with temperatures in South Korean cities having been in the mid- to high thirties amid high humidity over the past week.

Late July is also the customary peak of holiday season in South Korea, and pandemic-related strictures on travel have meant more people are either staying home or taking domestic trips instead of going abroad. To limit the spread of the coronavirus, in popular holiday destinations on the coast, local officials have banned access to beaches for set periods each day and banned eating and drinking on the beach.

The social distancing measures and many companies’ work-from-home directives have left the streets of Seoul, a typically bustling city, empty.

Han River Park in Seoul, South Korea, where Covid cases are at record highs Photograph: Chris Jung/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

At Nostimo, Park prepares authentic Greek dishes, with many ingredients sourced from a farm outside the city.

She says that with South Koreans unable to take trips abroad due to the pandemic, Nostimo has enjoyed strong demand from grounded travellers. “Our restaurant has benefited from visits by Koreans and non-Koreans alike wishing to have authentic international food experiences without getting on a plane,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, one group that has struggled has been the medical workers that have led the response to the crisis, often working long hours while risking exposure to infection. Doctors have fought with the government over pay and working conditions, and accused the government of taking credit for their work.

“Doctors and nurses who have been treating Covid-19 patients have been under a lot of stress, nearing burnout status,” said Park Jae-young, a medical doctor and Executive Editor of the Korean Doctors’ Weekly.

Park said that instead of looking forward to a “post-pandemic era” medical professionals are bracing for a future where the coronavirus remains a part of their work and life. “Considering the characteristics of the coronavirus - its transmission power, mutation patterns, and the vaccination rate - it seems that we will live with its effects virtually forever,” he said.

“It will be impossible for a very, very long time to come for tens of thousands of people to take off their masks and gather on a soccer field to cheer, or shake hands with strangers and have heated discussions in pubs.”

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