In South Korea And China, Loosening Restrictions Brings Coronavirus Resurgence

May 13, 2020
Originally published on May 13, 2020 10:51 am

For months, South Korea has been praised as a model and a beacon of hope for the world in its desperate fight to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Despite reporting its first confirmed case the same day as the U.S., the country has reported less than 300 deaths linked to COVID-19 — and since its peak in February, South Korea's intensive response had reduced its tally of new cases to a trickle.

In recent days, though, that hope and reassurance have given way to alarm.

South Korea is now grappling with some of its largest infection clusters yet after authorities began to loosen some social distancing restrictions this month. Scores of new cases have been reported in the past two weeks, many of which are linked to a young man who stopped in at several clubs and bars in Seoul the night of May 1. Officials do not know how he contracted the virus in the first place. It's a demoralizing development for officials there, who postponed their plans to reopen on-site classes in schools for the first time in more than two months.

But South Korea is not the only apparent success story to report a regression recently.

In Wuhan, China, where cases of the coronavirus were first reported, authorities announced Tuesday they will test the city's entire population of 11 million after new cases cropped up. Wuhan lifted its strict lockdown measures in early April, and the city had enjoyed at least 35 days without a new case — before a small cluster surfaced several days ago.

Both countries are responding to the resurgence of cases with aggressive contact tracing. In South Korea, that includes using cellphone data to identify some 10,000 people who may have been in contact with the new cluster and telling them to get tested. About 22,000 people so far have been tested in connection with the cluster.

Complicating matters is that some of the affected clubs cater to the LGBTQ community in Seoul, and some of their patrons have been reluctant to get tested for fear of being outed. The government has also warned people not to discriminate against patients since the cluster has stoked homophobic comments online.

"We release the movement of confirmed patients to encourage anyone who might be exposed get tested voluntarily," health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho told a news conference this week, according to a Reuters translation.

"We urge you to refrain from distributing patients' personal information or groundless rumors, which not only hurts them but can also be subject to punishment."

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Let's acknowledge what public health officials say is inevitable as the country opens up, as people move around more. There's still no vaccine, and though we can all try to keep our distance and try to be careful, there will be more coronavirus cases. That's how it works. When more cases come, it will be vital to catch them through testing. Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed this yesterday during a Senate hearing.


ANTHONY FAUCI: Without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks.

INSKEEP: We can at least try to learn from the experience of other places. China and South Korea suffered the outbreak sooner, beat down the number of cases faster and are farther along in reopening. So what are they experiencing as the virus gets new opportunities to spread? We have NPR's Emily Feng with us from Beijing, China, and NPR's Anthony Kuhn on the line from Seoul, South Korea. Hi, guys.



INSKEEP: Emily, I want to start with you. In Wuhan, China, they quarantined the whole city, more or less, until new cases declined to zero. And now they've reopened, and people are moving. Are they still at zero?

FENG: They are not. Over the weekend, they reported six new infections. It started with an 89-year-old man who had said he had symptoms for the last two months but was never tested. He now has COVID, and it turns out he infected his wife and four other people in his residential compound, though those other five people never showed symptoms. And it's a very small spike, as Dr. Anthony Fauci would put it, but it highlights just how difficult it is to test everyone and to detect people who do not show symptoms.

China's northeast region has also seen a number of these small spikes but for a very different reason. It's because of its proximity to Russia. And last month, there were hundreds of Chinese students, businessmen, travelers returning from China via Russia, and they brought COVID with them. So China closed down several border towns. They implemented a strict lockdown. They shut down their land border with Russia. And China's already blocked all foreigners from entering China, anyways, and it's even told its own citizens to stay in Russia. So it's taken very quick measures to lock down these small outbreaks.

INSKEEP: What is China doing about that outbreak in Wuhan?

FENG: They've gone full-out testing mode. They said on Tuesday that they're going to test all 11 million people who live in Wuhan.


FENG: At first, they wanted to test them within 10 days. It turns out that testing 11 million people is a lot, and that exceeds even their testing capabilities. So they will stagger that.

INSKEEP: OK, so they're trying to identify anybody else who may have this disease, try to isolate them and keep this outbreak from spreading. Now let's talk about Seoul, South Korea. South Korea, as you know, Anthony, is regarded as a global success story. They did a lot of testing very early, beat down the number of cases very early. What's happened since?

KUHN: Well, they're now grappling with their largest infection clusters yet. And it's been linked to a 29-year-old man who went to five clubs and bars on the night of May 1. The problem is nobody knows how he got it, and that makes officials worry that this virus has been just circulating inside communities undetected and just surfaced with this one man.

And this is a very frustrating and demoralizing sort of development for residents because they had gotten the number of local transmissions down to zero for many days. They had transitioned to a more relaxed form of social distancing. Schools were just about to reopen; they put that off for a week.

And so many people are angry at this club-hopping man for, you know, in their opinion, being irresponsible. Complicating matters is that some of these clubs cater to the LGBTQ community, and so some of the club's patrons were unwilling to get tested for fear they would be identified. And the government has warned people don't discriminate against patients because they will not get tested.

INSKEEP: OK. What is the government doing to manage the outbreak now that it's with them?

KUHN: Well, the government is casting its net very wide to try to stay ahead of the virus' spread. There were only about 1,500 people in the clubs on that particular night, but they've already identified 10,000 people through cellphone data and told them to get tested.


KUHN: And they've tested a total of 22,000 people so far in connection with the cluster. These clubs are near my house. I see the people lining up to get tested. The government is so far not too worried that it's going to get out of control. Nobody has died. There haven't been any serious cases yet.

INSKEEP: We're talking about people who are organized for this response. We're talking about millions of tests in China. We're talking about cellphone data already being gathered in South Korea. How certain are the authorities that they can handle these kinds of outbreaks, which do seem inevitable?

FENG: Well, China is very worried about the second wave. And they're particularly sensitive right now to any perception that they might be delaying a response to new miniature outbreaks or even covering up an outbreak. So the imperative now is to test widely, identify even asymptomatic cases, which is not easy given that these people, by definition, have no symptoms and Chinese tests, unfortunately, are not very accurate.

China is also supplementing this outbreak control effort through digital contact tracing. So authorities here are now working to unify literally hundreds of these digital health certificate apps people need to show when they enter office spaces or commercial buildings. These codes are now so ubiquitous that it's barely possible to live with one. One funny story that I saw earlier with state media reporting one man who had been on the run for murder for 24 years turned himself in because he had no valid ID and could not get a health code.

INSKEEP: Wow. Wow. Anthony, in a sentence or two, are South Korean authorities a little further along in managing this?

KUHN: Well, they were pretty well prepared when the epidemic hit. Now they've even further strengthened their quarantine and tracing systems. So when they transitioned to easier social distancing, they factored this in. They believe they can handle it without stressing their medical system.

INSKEEP: All right, we'll keep checking in with you guys. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul, Emily Feng in Beijing. Thanks to you both.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.