A rush to relax quarantine rules

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A rush to relax quarantine rules

The government has suddenly lifted quarantine measures at a fast clip. Even as daily Covid cases exceed 200,000, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters led by Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who tested positive himself, discussed the idea of easing social distancing rules shortly before the presidential election on March 9.

After extending the business closure time to 10 p.m. from 9 p.m. two weeks ago, the government on March 1 entirely scrapped the vaccine pass system for restaurants, cafes and other mass-use facilities followed by the extension of the business operating hours to 11 p.m., while restricting the number of people allowed for private gatherings to six as before.

Koreans have experienced overly rigid quarantine measures over the last two years. Despite protests about infringement on citizens’ lives, the government stayed hard-line. But it suddenly has gone all liberal. Although the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has proven less deadly, the number of deaths and critically-ill has been increasing sharply in line with a surge in infections. The death toll hit 161 on Sunday. The sudden change despite worsening statistics raises strong suspicion about its motive ahead of the election.

The government pressed with the vaccine pass system even on teenagers and to enter grocery shops. The move drew court suits which led to the nullification of the draconian rules provisionally. Opposition People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol promised to do away with the vaccine pass and received a warm response from self-employed voters, which coincidentally led to the lifting by the government. In reaction to the ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung’s call for extension of business operating hours, public health authorities suddenly rushed to ease the curfew ahead of the voting day.

The move would be a relief to the people and self-employed afflicted by lengthy social distancing guidelines. But to prevent adverse effects from the easing, the government should have thoroughly readied for the worsening spread and planned the right timing. Including early voters who already cast their ballots on Friday and Saturday, 44.19 million voters could head out to polling stations. What about over 1 million people under home treatment? Heated campaigning during the final few days also could help fan the danger of the spread.

Advancing the normalization ahead of the originally planned March 14 could be suspected to have been motivated by the election. Korea has already become a country with the most daily cases around the globe due to the politicization of quarantine measures. The government must ensure a fair election and safe management of positive cases.
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