Coronavirus: South Korea reports lowest number of new cases in four weeks

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Local residents spray disinfectant in their neighbourhood as a precaution against the coronavirus outbreak, in Seoul, South Korea, 23 March 2020Image source, EPA
Image caption,
people in Seoul have been disinfecting their own neighbourhoods

South Korea has reported the lowest number of new coronavirus cases since infection rates peaked four weeks ago, fuelling hope Asia's worst outbreak outside China may be abating.

The country recorded 64 new cases of Covid-19 in the last 24 hours, taking the total to 8,961 with 111 deaths.

But health officials warn against complacency, saying the country still faces a long war against the infection.

Europe is currently at the centre of the pandemic.

Italy reported 651 new deaths on Sunday, bringing the total there to 5,476, while Spain added another 462 deaths in the past 24 hours for a total of 2,182.

In New York, the city mayor warned of a worsening outbreak, with damage accelerated by shortages of key medical supplies.

And the expectation that the battle against the virus will be a long one was reinforced by news from Japan that its prime minister has admitted for the first time that the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games could be postponed.

How different is South Korea's approach?

Nearly 20,000 people are tested every day for coronavirus in South Korea, more people per capita than anywhere else in the world.

The country has created a network of public and private laboratories and provides dozens of drive-through centres where people with symptoms can check their health status.

South Korea developed its approach after an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) in 2015, when 36 people died in the country, which had the second-largest number of Mers cases after Saudi Arabia.

Mers forced the country to reassess its approach to infectious diseases and its Centres for Disease Control set up a special department to prepare for the worst, a move which appears to have paid off.

Laws on managing and publicly sharing information on patients with infectious diseases changed significantly after Mers and could be seen in action this year when the government used phone alerts to tell people if they were in the vicinity of a patient.

Media caption,

Reality Check tackles misleading health advice being shared online

This weekend, the government stepped up preventative action by sending out emergency alerts urging people to stay away from places which encourage mass gatherings such as churches, karaoke rooms, nightclubs and gyms.

It also asked religious leaders to check the temperature of followers and keep them at least two metres apart during any services they deemed necessary.

A number of churches are now facing legal action after violating the guidelines.

Why is South Korea fearing a new wave?

The country has seen two waves of infections, Yonhap news agency reports, the first beginning on 20 January with the first confirmed case, and the second with mass infections among a religious group.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Passengers arriving in Incheon from London are being quarantined for two weeks

Now there are fears that imported cases could fuel a third wave.

The government plans to install around 20 phone booth-style test facilities inside Incheon Airport to speed up the process of testing all arrivals from Europe.

The new entry procedures started on Sunday. So far 152 people have arrived in the country showing symptoms of the virus and they are awaiting their test results.

South Korea is at a critical juncture. Yes the aggressive use of technology to trace the virus and the mass testing of all who've been in contact with the infection appears to be a strategy that has worked but the question doctors across the country are asking themselves is - what comes next?

The aim is to reopen schools in two weeks' time. That is why the government is sending out urgent messages calling on the population to maintain social distance measures for the next 15 days to avoid any spike in infections. Spring has arrived and people are eager to enjoy themselves. The sense of solidarity that this is a battle to be won together is crumbling slightly. Health officials are hoping the stark warning that this is a prolonged war will encourage them to hold the line and stay away from mass gatherings.

Doctors, meanwhile, are discussing the next possible steps. The trace, test, treat approach will continue. But it will also need to be thought through. For instance, what happens when classrooms become infected? Do they isolate the entire school? Shut down all schools again? Continue to disrupt normal life?

At a press conference, the head of the National Medical Committee, Dr Oh Myoung-don, told reporters there could be another spike in infections once schools re-opened. He is also concerned about a possible resurgence of the virus this coming winter. He raised the possibility that it may be time to allow part of the population to get sick. The "herd immunity" theory. He acknowledges the risk but also believes now is the time to be having these conversations and warn the public.

The paradox of South Korea's success is that having worked so hard to lower infection rates, their medics have to keep going. It's a bit like climbing a steep mountain without knowing how high the peak will be or what obstacles may be in the way. The dire situation in Europe also has many here anxious that if they let up just a little, that too could be their fate.

What's happening elsewhere?

  • Italy banned people from travelling outside the municipality they are currently in, even to return to their normal place of residence, except for urgent work or health reasons
  • Russian military transport planes began delivering desperately needed ventilators, disinfection equipment and medical teams to Italy, which has the highest death toll in the world
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  • Saudi Arabia announced a 21-day dusk-to-dawn curfew with exemptions for key workers
  • The United Arab Emirates, home to major carriers Emirates and Etihad Airways, is to suspend all passenger and transit flights for two weeks