'Living with COVID-19' requires new strategy
South Korea is busy setting out a new strategy for allowing life to return to normal next month, phasing out strict quarantine measures and social distancing rules against COVID-19. This is welcome news as Koreans are eager to get out of the dark tunnel after undergoing the unprecedented public health crisis.
The country plans to work out a "living with COVID-19" scheme as it is hard to eradicate the virus completely. What makes it possible to coexist with the highly contagious virus is the power of vaccines. Korea hopes to meet its goal soon of realizing herd immunity by fully vaccinating over 70 percent of its population.
The United States, Britain and other advanced countries have already adopted such an approach toward a return to normalcy with the help of vaccination. Now, South Korea is on track to follow that path, as slightly over 60 percent of the country's 51 million population have so far been fully vaccinated. Health authorities are seeking to ramp up the rate to 70 percent by Oct. 23.
However, we cannot let our guard down against the pandemic as there have been reported cases of some fully vaccinated people coming down with breakthrough infections. There are also concerns that vaccines may not be effective in stopping COVID-19 variants such as the Delta strain. Therefore it is necessary for us to maintain at least a minimum level of quarantine and social distancing rules, while getting back to the pre-pandemic way of life on a gradual basis.
On Wednesday, the Moon Jae-in administration launched a government-civilian committee to make thorough preparations for the transition to normalcy. The 40-member panel with 30 private-sector experts is required to come up with a roadmap to carry out the smooth transition without any glitches. The committee, led by Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, will hammer out a new strategy on how to devise an exit plan and change how the country fights the pandemic.
First of all, the panel needs to present a plan to change the country's response to COVID-19 in line with the envisioned transition to normal life. The authorities have so far categorized the coronavirus as the pandemic. Now, they need to treat COVID-19 as an infectious respiratory disease similar to seasonal influenza.
As Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong pointed out, the country should shift its strategy from suppressing the virus to managing it under the "living with COVID-19" scheme. As such, the government will have to ease its tight quarantine and social distancing guidelines. It is also necessary to lift business restrictions gradually such as business operating hour limits and caps on the number of people at private gatherings.
Most of all, the authorities should prepare for a contingency plan to deal with the worst-case scenario ― a possible surge in infections in response to loosened measures. It is also urgent to restructure the healthcare system to focus more on treating critically ill patients and preventing deaths, while expanding at-home treatment of patients with light symptoms.