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South Korea Criticized For Its Handing Of 3rd Wave Of COVID-19


After winning global praise for aggressively tackling the pandemic, South Korea is now dealing with a third wave of infections, and the government is facing criticism for flouting its own rules. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: New cases recently jumped to their highest level since March, averaging more than 400 new cases a day over the past week. According to the government's own rules, that means social distancing measures should be increased to the second-highest level, but the government has hesitated to go that far. On Friday, Sohn Young-rae, a spokesman for the health ministry, downplayed the importance of alert levels.


SOHN YOUNG-RAE: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "We think citizens' voluntary cooperation and participation account for most of the results," he said, "and are more crucial than the government's forceable restrictions." But Professor Eom Joong Sik, an infectious diseases expert at Gachon University in Incheon city, says that by not following its own guidelines, the government is muddling the message.

EOM JOONG SIK: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "If the government doesn't stick to its standards and principles," he says, "how can it persuade the citizens to follow guidelines and restrictions?" The government claims it's trying to minimize economic damage, but Eom questions whether suppressing an outbreak quickly costs more than allowing it to drag on.

EOM: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "I think it was a spontaneous decision to dodge strong complaints," he says, "rather than the result of quantified predictions and comparison of economic damage." Amid this third wave, South Korea's gearing up for the annual national college entrance exam, which is seen as crucial for young South Koreans' career prospects. Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae pleaded with the public to cooperate.


YOO EUN-HAE: (Through interpreter) I ask all citizens to act as if their children are taking the exam and pause all everyday social activities for the next week.

KUHN: Unlike previous waves, South Korea's third wave is made up of small community clusters, which makes it harder to suppress. South Korea's case numbers are low by international standards, but Eom Joong Sik says South Korea should not squander the achievements it has won through decisive action.

EOM: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "With COVID-19 responses," he warns, "a momentary lapse of judgment or loss of control can lead to irreversible consequences."

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF UYGAR DUZGUN'S "SUMMER COOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.