South Korea reimposes COVID-19 curbs amid ‘mayhem’ at hospitals

South Korea rolls back its ‘Living with COVID-19’ policy as infections and severe cases reach record highs.

A couple stands next to people waiting in a long line to undergo a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Seoul, South Korea, on December 15, 2021 [Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters]

South Korea says it will reimpose curfews on businesses and tighten social distancing rules as the number of COVID-19 infections and severe cases reach record highs.

The measures, announced on Thursday, come a month and a half after the South Korean government eased restrictions under a “Living with COVID-19” policy. But with new daily infections soaring and healthcare workers warning of “mayhem” at hospitals, the government has come under increased pressure to roll back the policy.

Under the new rules, which will come into effect on Saturday, gatherings are limited to no more than four people, as long as they are fully vaccinated.

Restaurants cafes and bars will also need to close by 9pm and movie theatres and internet cafes by 10pm.

Unvaccinated people can only dine out alone, or use takeout or delivery services.

“We’re making all-out efforts to overcome the pressing crisis by expanding our medical capacity and vaccination campaign, but we need time,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said at a government meeting.

“We can go beyond this crisis only by beating down the current spread as soon as possible through strong social distancing.”

He also urged those eligible for booster jabs to get them as soon as possible, warning about the pressure building on the country’s healthcare system. More than 80 percent of the South Korean population has been fully vaccinated.

Healthcare workers have been pushing for the new curbs, with doctors and nurses on Monday describing “battlefield” scenes at Seoul’s hospitals.

“As the number of critically ill older patients increases, what is required [of hospital staff] has also increased. Already it’s been two years since the burden of cleaning hospital rooms and bathrooms, and distributing food has fallen to nurses, leaving us no time to even eat,” said Ahn Su-kyeong, a nurse at Korea’s National Medical Center. “Those nurses working with patients on their deathbeds and dealing with their corpses are struggling with fatigue and depression, not knowing when they will be able to get out of the current situation.”

Pushing for tighter social distancing rules, one doctor also criticised what he called a lack of government attention to increasing manpower at hospitals.

“No matter how many beds are secured, without skilled medical personnel, medical services cannot be provided at the moment,” said Kim Hyun-tae, head of the labour union at Wonju Severance Christian Hospital.

“The government is only focused on the number of beds, but this is the wrong point to focus on. Even if you look at the executive orders, there is no talk about manpower, yet treating and caring for patients is something that has to be done by human beings.”

There was no immediate comment from health workers on the measures announced on Thursday.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 7,622 cases for Thursday, a day after posting a new record daily count of 7,850. It said the number of serious cases has hit another high at 989, with some 87 percent of intensive care unit beds taken up in the Seoul metropolitan area and about 81 percent in use nationwide.

Daily numbers of cases shot past 7,000 for the first time last week, just days after surpassing the 5,000 mark.

KDCA director Jeong Eun-kyeong said the daily tally could top 10,000 this month if the upturn is not blunted.

Total infections rose to 544,117, including 148 cases of the potentially more transmissible Omicron variant, with 4,518 deaths, the KDCA said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies