At professional baseball games in South Korea, seats are packed again. As in the pre-pandemic period, fans can drink beer and eat fried chicken. They can clap their hands, stomp their feet, and wave inflatable mufflers to support their team.
However, they are not allowed, at least not yet, to shout or sing battle songs, which is a key feature of the Korean baseball public.
“If you scream a lot, the virus will seep through your mask,” Prime Minister Kim Boo Kyum pleaded to fans on a radio show this week after crowds cheered their teams too loudly during the tense playoff games.
This is a microcosm of how life is going in South Korea: basically everything is returning to normal, but not quite so.
While South Korea has never closed during the coronavirus pandemic, it has also never been fully reopened, especially since the country has been battling a fourth wave of infections since July.
However, starting this week, the government unveiled the first step of its “living with COVID-19” plan. Large crowds can now gather in Seoul. Restaurants and cafes, including those serving alcohol, no longer have a night curfew. Sports fans have returned to stadiums and arenas.
Avoiding setbacks, South Korea will phase out all social distancing rules by the end of February, two years after the country experienced one of the world’s first COVID-19 outbreaks.
South Korea’s approach to COVID-19 has undoubtedly been successful so far. It is one of the few countries that has escaped both mass isolation and mass deaths.
Now, surpassing its global rivals in nearly every stage of the pandemic, South Korea hopes to be able to demonstrate how to live with COVID-19.
First, few in South Korea claim victory. This contrasts with countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where leaders declared independence from the virus and quickly loosened social distancing only to see the delta take over their populations, killing tens of thousands in every country.
“The goal here is to create a system where the government can relax restrictions, but at the same time has criteria for return,” said Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.
There are good reasons to be careful. Although over 75% of South Koreans are vaccinated, the number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases has not declined since the beginning of the fourth wave.
“I think at this point we have a realization that vaccines do what they are supposed to do, which is prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death. But they don’t necessarily prevent infection, ”Kim said.
Officials have repeatedly warned that the opening could be canceled. And they say there may be some precautions, such as mandatory face masks, for the foreseeable future.
South Koreans seem receptive. According to a recent poll by Seoul National University, about 49% of South Koreans are ambivalent about easing restrictions. According to a Gallup Korea study, 27% believe it will never be possible to stop wearing masks.
Getting public support
Unlike many countries, South Korea has seen little domestic backlash on its approach to the pandemic.
Businesses generally comply with mandatory curfews. There was no successful anti-vaccine movement. Almost everyone wears masks, even when some are running along empty paths.
According to public health experts, this public support has been at the core of South Korea’s success with COVID-19. Not only has it provided the authorities with more tools to deal with the pandemic, but it has also become less coercive and more accurate.
For example, there was no need for vaccination; about 90% of adults received the COVID-19 vaccine. We haven’t heard of mass blocking either; during a pandemic, it was always possible to go shopping or eat at a restaurant.
Perhaps the most invasive tool is the South Korean contact tracing system.
Using a mobile phone, credit card and other personal information, authorities can quickly determine where those infected with COVID-19 have gone and who they could have contacted.
Contact tracing was only made possible after South Korea’s National Assembly relaxed privacy laws following a public outcry over government action over the deadly outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2015.
“I think people here have made a number of choices to be free, and they really are,” Kim said.
As South Korea transitions to living with the virus, it will continue to use many of the same tools that have become part of daily life.
Customers at every restaurant in Seoul must register either by phone or by using the registration sheet at the front desk. Temperature checks remain at the entrance of almost every facility. Soon, electronic vaccinations will be required for attending sporting events, concerts and other major events.
However, some health experts warn that new standards may be required to determine the success of COVID-19.
While many news outlets continue to focus on the number of confirmed daily cases of illness, it will soon be important to focus on more meaningful dimensions, such as the number of ICU beds available or the number of serious illnesses.
“Even if there are 10,000 confirmed cases, it will still be more important to know the number of serious cases or the death rate,” said Chun Eun-mi, a respiratory specialist at Ewha University Medical Center in Seoul.
The experts also warn that inconsistencies may need to be addressed as the authorities determine the best path to follow.
During the previous round of social distancing, many South Korean newspapers ridiculed the strangely specific rules for Seoul fitness centers, which were forbidden to play music at a pace higher than 120 beats per minute. Runners were also not allowed to run on the treadmill at speeds exceeding 6 km / h.
Lately, Korean baseball fans have questioned the rules against applause. They ask why they are allowed to attend baseball games, but are not allowed to loudly support their team?
South Korean officials insist that applause may be allowed during future opening rounds.
In the meantime, the South Korean Prime Minister asked the fans, “Please reduce the amount of shouting a bit.”