South Korea reported 34 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, the highest daily number in a month, as President Moon Jae-in outlined an ambitious vision for the country’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said of the new cases 26 were domestically transmitted infections and eight involved travellers from overseas.
It was the first time that South Korea’s daily cases has jumped above 30 in about a month.
After battling the first major epidemic outside China, South Korea had posted zero or very few domestic cases over the past 10 days, with the daily tally hovering at about 10 or less in recent weeks.
The resurgence in recent days followed a small but growing coronavirus outbreak centred around a handful of Seoul nightclubs, which a man in his late 20s had visited before testing positive for the virus. At least 15 people were traced to that man as of Friday, and 14 of the 26 cases were reported from Seoul on Sunday, although the KCDC did not specify how many were linked.
The outbreak came just as South Korea eased some social distancing restrictions and sought to fully reopen schools and businesses in line with a transition from an intensive social distancing campaign to what it calls “distancing in daily life”.
In a televised speech, Moon said citizens must neither panic nor let down their guard, saying: “The right quarantine and medical systems combined with experience to respond quickly to any unexpected infection clusters that might occur.”
But he warned of a second wave of the epidemic later this year, saying the recent cluster underscored the risks that the virus, which causes COVID-19, can spread widely again at any time.
“It’s not over until it’s over. While keeping enhanced alertness till the end, we must never lower our guard regarding epidemic prevention,” he said in the address marking the third anniversary of his inauguration. “We are in a prolonged war.”
As part of a long-term battle on COVID-19, the KCDC will be given greater power and renamed the Disease Control and Prevention Administration, Moon said. Local governments will set up their own epidemic response system with more experts.
“We will also push to establish hospitals specialised in treating infectious diseases and a national infectious disease research centre,” Moon said. “These tasks are very urgent if we are to prepare for the second epidemic wave that experts predict will hit this fall or winter.”
Widespread testing, intensive contact tracing and tracking apps have helped Asia’s fourth-largest economy largely contain the epidemic without extensive lockdowns seen elsewhere. Still, the pandemic has pushed South Korea’s economy into its biggest contraction since 2008 in the first quarter.
Describing the economic damage as “colossal”, Moon presented an ambitious vision for South Korea’s economic recovery, one based on the country’s prowess in the bio-health and communication technology sectors.
“We will blaze a trail in the post-COVID-19 era with a pace-setting economy,” he said.
“The early establishment of 5G infrastructure and the building of infrastructure to collect, accumulate and use data will be pursued as national projects,” he said. “Non-face-to-face industries related to medical services, education and retail distribution will be intensively fostered.”
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from the South Korean capital, Seoul, said: “Moon Jae-in has been regarded as setting an example for the rest of the world.”
“But what lies ahead is quite grim. We stand on the verge of a global recession. South Korea’s economy is export driven, and it is a fact that people won’t be upgrading their Samsung smartphone or put off buying their motor car until next year – all the kind of things that are going to hurt South Korea.”
Meanwhile, in neighbouring China, health authorities reported 14 new cases on Sunday, its first double-digit rise in 10 days. Eleven of 12 domestic infections were in the northeast province of Jilin and one in Hubei, whose capital Wuhan was the epicentre of the global pandemic.
The Jilin cases prompted authorities to raise the threat level in one of its counties, Shulan, to high risk, just days after downgrading all regions in the country to low risk.
Jilin shares a border with North Korea, where the virus situation is unclear but whose vastly inadequate healthcare system has been offered help by China in dealing with any outbreak.