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New Coronavirus Cases Are On The Rise In South Korea

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

South Korea has been praised as a country that successfully controlled COVID-19. But in the past week new infections have hit their highest level in five months. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul on the causes - an exhausted populace, distrust of the government and a faltering economy.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In recent weeks, many Koreans got some vacation time. Some schools had started a new semester. And the mood was cautiously upbeat. But this week, new COVID-19 cases have hovered near 300 a day, mostly in and around Seoul. Over the weekend, the capital tightened restrictions on gatherings. And on Thursday, it banned demonstrations of more than 10 people. Director of the National Institute of Health, Kwon Jun-wook, said at a briefing on Tuesday that the government has got to intervene fast.

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KWON JUN-WOOK: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: If testing of suspected patients is delayed by poor cooperation, he said, we could face the kind of massive outbreaks we've seen in the U.S. or Europe. We are on the threshold of such a crisis now.

Dr. Choi Sunhwa, a research fellow with the National Cancer Center, has done mathematical modelling to predict the epidemic's progress. She says that for the past few months, South Korea has kept new daily COVID cases mostly in the double digits. She calculates that each COVID patient was infecting an average of less than one person. But this month, she says, each patient is infecting an average of about 2.8 people.

CHOI SUNHWA: (Through interpreter) I would predict conservatively that the daily case number is unlikely to drop below 50 in a month, even if the virus's rate of reproduction drops back to July levels today.

KUHN: She adds that it's going to be harder to flatten this curve quickly, partly because people's attitudes have changed.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) Now due to social distancing fatigue, I'm afraid that reinforcing social distancing measures may not have the same impact they had during the first wave.

KUHN: South Korea has won international praise for its aggressive testing and contact tracing. But, Choi says, South Korea's government, just like any other, still has to strike a balance between public health and the economy.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) A complete lockdown would flatten the curve. But when it's eventually lifted, unless the virus has been completely eradicated, infections can surge again.

KUHN: South Korean health authorities generally have citizens' trust and cooperation, but not everyone's.

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KUHN: On Sunday, thousands of anti-government protesters defined a police band to gather in downtown Seoul. Pastor Jun Kwang-hoon, through a translator, accused the administration of President Moon Jae-in of intentionally infecting members of his group, the Sarang-jeil Church, with the virus. He blames China for the epidemic and calls it the Wuhan virus for the city where it first broke out.

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JUN KWANG-HOON: (Through interpreter) And he has terrorized our church with the Wuhan virus.

KUHN: Sarang-jeil church members account for the largest group of new cases. And the government is trying to test them all for COVID-19. Pastor Jun has tested positive for the virus, but he denies allegations that he violated quarantine in order to attend the rally. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.