Unsustainable distancing

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Unsustainable distancing

Kim Yoon
The author is a professor of the Health Policy and Management Department of Seoul National University.


The government has been enforcing the Level 2.5 social distancing for more than two months around the capital region, while allowing one more business hour until 10:00 p.m. in other regions. Whether such strict measures are necessary despite the havoc on self-employed businesses need to be examined.

First, the current mitigation protocol lacks effectiveness as it regulates too broadly while leaving the really vulnerable places relatively unregulated. The communal spread more often takes place in religious congregational locations (21 percent), hospital, nursing homes and rehab centers (19 percent), and workplaces (16 percent) than multi-use facilities (11 percent). The cases from 1.3 million multi-use locations like restaurants, cafes and indoor sports facilities made up just half of the 60,000 church cases.

Second, the current social distancing measures are overly centered on multi-use business settings. Even if they need to be regulated, it should be done so that the spread does not exceed the rate at other locations. During the winter outbreak, average daily cases surged to 4.4 times the average in October when the nation was under social distancing Level 1. The increases in cases for multi-use establishments stayed less than the average. New positive cases from restaurants and cafes decreased by 20 percent from October and by 70 percent for indoor sports facilities. Detention centers (13 times) and churches (10 times) mostly contributed to the surge in the average number of cases.

Third, the universally enforced regulation has caused broad damage without much effect. Just three out of 100,000 restaurants and diners reported cluster infections. It is not fair to force all self-employed businesses to shut or restrict their business hours even though cluster cases took place among a few multi-use facilities, including churches, which had not fully obliged with hygiene and distancing rules. The actions are not suitable for Korea, where daily cases are in three-digit numbers compared to the far higher rates in the United States and Europe.

Fourth, despite overly strict distancing measures, the government’s compensation for business loss is paltry. The measures nearly match Europe, where daily cases are multi-fold bigger than Korea. The spread can be curbed through tough social distancing rules, but social and economic damage is even greater.

Small businesses and the unemployed in Europe are less worried about their livelihoods from social distancing measures. Their governments cover most of the business losses. Germany subsides 75 percent of their sales loss, and the British government compensates 80 percent of the income after losing jobs from Covid-19. Japan offers about 18 million won ($16,071) for self-employed businesses after their reduced business hours. The amount is 6 to 9 times bigger than what the Korean government has given out in relief funds.

Korea takes pride in is successful quarantine measures thanks to its relatively modest numbers in the spread. But mitigation success should be defined by the livelihoods of the people under Covid-19, not daily cases tally. Mitigation by overly restricting freedom in everyday lives to control the infection is neither successful nor sustainable. It is unjust to keep up quarantine by victimizing self-employed businesses and part-time workers.

The social distancing rules need an overhaul with greater focus on the quality of people’s lives. The threshold of elevating social distancing to Level 1.5 from Level 1 should be raised to daily average tally of 300 to 400 from current 100. Except under the highest Level 3, self-employed businesses should not be forced to shut. If the spread is not controlled, the government can adjust the number of customers or business hours incrementally. The government also must strengthen social distancing and quarantine actions for virus-prone settings like churches, nursing homes and detention centers. The central and local governments must focus on field-based support and surveillance on hygiene and distancing rules in public and private settings. More compensation for damages should also be provided for revenue losses of the self-employed businesses.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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