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South Korea Faces Third Wave Of Coronavirus

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

South Korea, one of the most successful countries in fighting the pandemic, is doing worse. Case numbers are growing during a third wave of infections. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the debate over how to respond.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: For the past week, South Korea has tried to discourage year-end revelry by banning gatherings of more than four people and shutting down ski resorts and tourist spots. But new case numbers and deaths remain stubbornly at or near record highs. Those new infection highs of around 1,000 a day in a country of more than 50 million are, of course, nowhere near as bad as the U.S., nor are they as good as, say, New Zealand or Taiwan. Dr. Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease expert at Korea University's Guro Hospital in Seoul, recalls that when the first wave of infections hit in February, fear of a new and unfamiliar virus gripped South Koreans.

KIM WOO-JOO: (Through interpreter) They got so scared, they started wearing masks and stopped going outside even before the government mandated it. But as the pandemic wore on, people loosened up, and mobility went up.

KUHN: Meanwhile, the government listened to a crescendo of voices of exhausted citizens and struggling businesses.

KIM: (Through interpreter) The government hesitated to raise the social distancing level when it should have and was too fast to downgrade it when it shouldn't have.

KUHN: Kim argues that the government has got it backwards. It's not the countermeasures that are hurting the economy. It's the pandemic. Experts also point out that the third wave is going to be tougher to crush than the first two. This time, there are more undetected community transmissions, more smaller clusters of infections. Chun Eun-mi, a respiratory disease specialist at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, says South Korea relied on testing and contact tracing to beat the first two waves. But this time, that won't be enough, she says.

CHUN EUN-MI: (Through interpreter) We can only cut the chain of transmission if we cut social activity.

KUHN: The government won praise early on by putting health authorities and experts firmly in charge of the pandemic response. But Chun says this has changed.

CHUN: (Through interpreter) Aside from a few exceptions, most medical experts have been calling on the government to raise social distancing restrictions and warning that hospitals are under a lot of strain. I feel that our opinions are not reflected very well in the government's decisions.

KUHN: South Korea's government denies that there's any daylight between politicians and experts or that it's gone soft on the virus. Speaking on December 22, Health Ministry spokesperson Sohn Young-rae acknowledged that some people are calling for raising restrictions to the maximum.

SOHN YOUNG-RAE: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: Those calls are understandable, he said. But regarding occasional claims that the government has violated its own criteria for raising restrictions, he added, we've never done that. Just before Christmas, U.S. troops stationed here got the country's first coronavirus vaccinations. Most South Koreans won't start getting theirs until February. The government insists there's no delay. But at Korea University Hospital, Dr. Kim Woo-joo says the government seems to have dropped the ball.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I don't understand why the South Korean government didn't start actively negotiating advance-purchase agreements until November.

KUHN: The government announced Thursday that it secured more than enough vaccines for its population. And according to a recent poll, nearly 90% say they'll take the shot. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.