The renewed outbreaks of Covid-19 in South Korea and China show the continuing risk of reopening

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This was South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who spoke on Sunday after a new group of coronavirus cases emerged in the capital Seoul, raising concerns about a second wave of infections in the East Asian country.

South Korea was among the first places to face a serious coronavirus epidemic and appeared to be well on its way to easing restrictions after weeks of social removal measures and careful surveillance. But the new cluster seems to have put an end to that, for now, with Moon warning his people “we must never let our guard down on preventing the epidemic.”
China is also introducing new restrictions after two cities have reported new virus cases. Shulan, in Jilin province, in the far north-east of the country, was placed in confinement, following 11 recently confirmed cases. Jilin is bordered by Russia and North Korea and concerns have previously been raised about cases imported from abroad that have caused a new outbreak.
More alarming is the new group of infections in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where cases of the new coronavirus were first detected late last year. Wuhan was the first city in the world to go into bulk, returning to relative normalcy only at the end of last month after 76 days.

City officials said on Monday that five new cases have been confirmed in the city, none of which have been imported from abroad. Although this is very different from the figures at the beginning of the crisis, or from those reported daily in much of western Europe and the United States at this time, the apparent ability of the virus to continue to spread without being discovered, especially in a cities as intensely guarded and limited as Wuhan – will lead to concerns about the feasibility of the reopening.

Mi Feng, spokesman for the Chinese National Health Commission, on Sunday he urged people to “stay alert and strengthen personal protection against the virus”. He added that the new clusters were a reminder to avoid social gatherings and consult a doctor or test if someone were to experience viral symptoms.
Prior to the latest cases, the number of new infections in both China and South Korea had slowed, with local broadcasting appearing to have been stopped. While doubts can be raised about the accuracy of Chinese numbers or the certainty that anyone can have that all cases have been detected and contained in such a vast country, South Korea’s response has been hailed as one of the best globally, aided in part by the country’s relatively small size and easily controllable borders.

The latest cases may still prove to be an obstacle that will be contained, but that two countries that appear to be on top of the issues are again signaling that national broadcasts should be primarily of concern.

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Observers need only look at Singapore, which had fewer than 2,000 cases in early April and is now more than 23,000 – regarding the potential risks of relaxing too early and assuming that the battle was won when it just started. The state of the city is increasing the track of contacts, restrictions on movement and even implementing robot dogs to encourage social distancing as it tries to keep its outbreak under control.

Will lessons be learned from these countries in the West, where countries are several weeks behind in their outbreaks, but many governments are already advocating a little to ease the blockages, despite skyrocketing infection rates?

Recent history suggests no. Western governments have lagged behind in their response to the virus as it spread to Asia, despite clear evidence of the potential for a global pandemic. Even Asian experience and advice has been ignored on face masks until months after the pandemic – a recent study conducted by scientists in Hong Kong and the UK is only the last to confirm that such coverage drastically reduces infection rates.

The new infections in China and South Korea also risk stimulating a nihilistic response. If the countries that appear to be on top of the disease cannot contain it, what can a nation hope to do with thousands of daily cases? But this is probably the wrong takeaway: these countries had the worst outbreaks in the world in February, but managed to get them under control. The fact that they are witnessing new cases is a lesson on the risks of relaxing too early, not a reason to abandon the struggle altogether.

Neither is the message from Asia entirely sombre. Vietnam and Thailand are discussing the potential of creating a travel corridor, so confident in how small their domestic outbreaks are. New Zealand and Australia have already decided to do the same, although not for several months.
And Hong Kong, which successfully curbed a second wave of viruses when it seemed that the city could follow the Singapore road, went on for 21 days without local infections, increasing the possibility of being declared virus-free later this month .

It is not over until it is over. But in the end it will end. What the Asian experience is showing is that this will require constant vigilance and lots of patience.

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