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South Korea on Verge of Major Lockdown, Amid Infection Spikes

People wait for coronavirus testing at a testing site in Seoul, South Korea, July 7, 2021.
People wait for coronavirus testing at a testing site in Seoul, South Korea, July 7, 2021.

South Korea’s capital is on the verge of perhaps its most intense lockdown yet, after the country reported its largest daily surge of coronavirus cases.

Officials on Thursday recorded 1,275 new infections, the vast majority of which were in the Seoul area, where over half of South Koreans live.

That is South Korea’s largest number of confirmed daily cases since the pandemic began.

Seoul may soon impose the toughest restrictions under a four-tier social distancing system, said Sohn Young-rae, a senior Health and Welfare Ministry official, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Level 4 restrictions can include severe measures, such as a ban on private gatherings of more than two people after 6 p.m.

That would amount to the first intense lockdown of Seoul, where life has largely gone on as usual over the past year and a half, compared to many other parts of the world.

South Korea won international praise for its initial containment of the virus, thanks to its efficient and widely available COVID-19 tests and intense contact tracing.

However, the country has lagged most other developed countries in acquiring vaccines, meaning it has been stuck in a state of not being fully opened or closed.

Over the past several weeks, restaurants, cafes, and outdoor parks along Seoul’s Han River have been more crowded than usual, as the government prepared to ease social distancing precautions.

Many now say that message was premature, leading to what health officials call the fourth wave of the virus.

Health officials say they are especially concerned that the virus is spreading among those in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are not yet eligible for vaccinations. There is also a growing number of cases of the highly transmissible delta variant.

The outbreak is especially centered in the Seoul metropolitan area, a densely populated region with more than 25 million people.

Health officials have identified cluster infections at several so-called English “cram schools” in the Seoul outskirts, as well as a restaurant near the Seoul city center.

In some ways, South Korea’s situation mirrors that of other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, which have seen recent infection spikes after initially controlling the virus.

South Korea’s outbreak, though, is still mild compared to many other countries. According to government figures, only about 2,000 South Koreans have died of the virus, compared to 605,000 in the United States and 128,000 in Britain.

However, in Britain and the United States, the vaccine has been widely available for months. In South Korea, less than 11% of the population have been fully vaccinated, according to health authorities.

South Korea’s government says it is still on track to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity by November and has recently reached several deals that could speed up the pace of vaccinations.