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(Yonhap Feature) With eased social distancing, S. Koreans imagine post-coronavirus life

Feature 09:00 April 21, 2020

By Lee Minji

SEOUL, April 21 (Yonhap) -- When South Korea reported its first case of the new coronavirus on Jan. 20, little was fathomed about how this virus would change life.

Three months into the virus outbreak, what was once deemed a regional virus has developed into a global pandemic, reshaping how people work, rest and live.

In South Korea, where more than 10,000 cases have been reported, the unprecedented situation has prompted a "new normal," changing everyday life in unexpected ways.

One month ago, the government launched an intensive social distancing campaign, shutting down schools, churches, gyms and bars. Companies turned to remote working to minimize risks of infection.

Masks have become daily necessities and schools resumed classes -- online -- in April for the first time ever. Church services were suspended and weddings called off. Going to the movies or a baseball match became something unfathomable.

This photo, taken on April 4, 2020, shows people taking a company entrance test at an outdoor stadium in Ansan, outside of Seoul. Applicants were seated five meters apart from each other. (Yonhap)

The rigorous effort seems to have paid off.

The government attributes a fall in cluster infections and infections coming from unknown routes to the social distancing scheme.

"The number of daily new infections, which hovered around 100 in the 10 days before the social distancing campaign took off, declined to below 50 on April 9. It fell to a single-digit figure in two months," Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told a press briefing on Sunday.

Park also noted how cluster infections fell to three cases in the past 10 days from over 10, and infections from unidentified routes averaged 2.1 percent in the last two weeks compared to around 10 percent before the campaign.

South Korea reported 8 new infections on Sunday and 13 on Monday, a dramatic fall from a peak of 909 reported on Feb. 29.

Members of Seoul City Church in the eastern Seoul ward of Jungnang take part in a drive-thru Sunday service in a parking lot on April 19, 2020. (Yonhap)

The campaign, which encourages people to keep distance from each other, however, also had drawbacks.

"I continue to feel anxious about the virus," said a Seoul resident in her 50s who asked not to be named.

"I usually feel better when I go to church every Sunday, but I've not been going for almost three months even before churches began to stream services online. Mostly it's because of infection risks, but also because of peer pressure toward people who visit churches."

In online forums for moms, posts lamenting child care stress can be easily seen. Schools and child care centers have shut down, leaving stay-at-home parents to solely look after their children.

A series of studies led by You Myoung-soon, a professor at Seoul National University's Graduate School of Public Health, showed that housewives and small business owners tend to be more affected by everyday changes stemming from the pandemic.

A first grader at an elementary school in the central Seoul ward of Yongsan greets his teacher in an online class with the help of his mother on April 20, 2020. (Yonhap)

Factoring in the mounting fatigue coming from social distancing, South Korea has eased some regulations while extending the overall campaign to early May.

The current deadline is May 5, which is anticipated to help people stay indoors during the so-called golden holiday when public holidays are scheduled in late April and early May. It is also expected to give authorities time to assess possible infections during Easter and the April 15 general elections.

Under the measures announced Sunday, the government has eased restrictions on churches, gyms, cram schools and bars. National parks, forests and arboretums, which are seen to carry lower risks of infections, are set to open gradually.

A teacher in traditional Korean attire votes in the quadrennial general elections at an elementary school in South Chungcheong Province on April 15, 2020. (Yonhap)

For those who have been weighed down by social distancing, this is a sign of hope.

"It's not that I'm worried, but I'm mostly relieved. The economic fallout is really bad," said Yoo Song-yi, who works in the accounting department of a local food conglomerate. Yoo asked to be identified by an alias.

"I can see that net profit is weakening, and I hear from suppliers and people who run their own businesses how they are failing to make a profit while managing fixed expenses like rent. It's tougher on them."

In fact, a recently conducted government poll showed that among those who called for immediate easing of social distancing, 19.1 percent cited the sluggish economy and 17.1 percent exhaustion over the prolonged social distancing campaign.

This photo, taken on March 17, 2020, shows people standing in a queue to buy face masks at a pharmacy in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

But some are still wary about easing the rules yet.

"Although rules have been eased, I want to stay safe until I feel sure that things are better," the housewife said. "I think I'll wait until the end of the golden season to start going to church and see my friends."

The government poll showed that a majority of respondents shared the view. More than 63 percent were against an immediate easing of social distancing, with 66.2 percent of them citing risks of the virus resurfacing when a cure is not yet available.

The government has also made clear that the recent easing does not mean going back to life before the coronavirus.

"In terms of quarantine, it is safest to continue high-intensity social distancing, but it is not easy in reality. We need to find a middle ground," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a government meeting.

"We are not at the stage where we can feel relieved," he added.

That's why some, like Sophia Yoon, have decided to embrace the contagious virus as part of everyday life.

"I think the virus is somewhat similar to fine dust. In the beginning, it was a big issue but now we are less worried about it. While we are careful and wear face masks, we still carry on with life," said Yoon, an office worker in Seoul.

"I can somewhat imagine reports of new infections becoming something like the weather forecast. Although I hope things don't worsen, we have to get used to it. We will."

Authorities were fully aware of the challenges going forward.

"We may not be able to return to life (before the COVID-19 outbreak) for quite a long time, maybe eternally," Chung said on April 13.


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