Spectators are seated in a socially distanced fashion at a Seoul baseball stadium on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Vaccine envy is spreading among pandemic-weary Koreans, as the country trails behind most major economies in vaccinations with just 4 percent of the population half or fully vaccinated.
“When I hear about mask-less concerts and travels resuming in some countries I just get depressed,” said a Seoul resident surnamed Park. Park, a 29 year old without medical conditions, said he has “no idea” when he would be getting his shot.
Based on the latest vaccination timeline, a healthy adult working in a nonessential sector cannot expect to get a shot until August.
“I think people have had enough,” said a 30-something cafe owner in Siheung, Gyeonggi Province, asking to be identified only by her surname Choi.
“Koreans are probably some of the best mask wearers in the world, and I think most have done a good job of following the government’s safety rules for over a year now,” she said. “Business owners, especially, have complied with several closures that went poorly compensated.”
Choi said she found the talks of a new wave of infections and another round of social distancing restrictions approaching to be “disheartening.” “I don’t know for how much longer we can hold on,” she said. “We’re really desperate for the vaccine rollout to happen as fast as possible.”
But it’s not just the young and healthy who are waiting for their chance to be vaccinated. Another Seoul resident said her grandparents, who are in their 80s, were yet to get a shot despite having signed up for an appointment.
“They were told their turn might come in May or the month after that,” she said. The vaccinations for people aged 75 and above began on April 1, but less than 20 percent in that age group having gotten a shot to date.
The vaccine-assisted return to normalcy is still far off for Korea, according to top infectious disease expert Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Medical Center. He said until vaccines reach people at risk of severe COVID-19, mitigation measures of higher intensity will be inevitable.
“Physical distancing, face mask wearing and other restrictions should remain in place at least through summer, by which time vaccinations of more vulnerable members of the society would be completed,” he said.
The government’s weekly report shows people are social distancing less, despite the daily case count hovering around a near-second wave figure of 600. More than 40 percent of all newly diagnosed patients have caught the virus from family, friends and other people in their close circles.
“It’s pandemic burnout,” Kim said. “
A new Gallup survey found that more Koreans disapprove than approve of how the Moon Jae-in administration is handling the pandemic. Overall, 49 percent of 1,003 respondents rated the administration’s pandemic performance negatively compared with 43 percent who gave positive marks. More than half of those who disapprove said they were unhappy with the vaccine shortage.
The administration has so far refused to acknowledge a slow distribution of vaccines or lack of supply.
Moon told Monday’s chief of staff meeting that “the attack on the administration over vaccine rollout has gone over the line,” asking critics to “stop the fearmongering.”
“Korea’s pandemic circumstances are different from those of other countries. There’s no point in making comparisons,” he said.
Hong Nam-ki, who is leading the administration’s COVID-19 response task force as acting prime minister, called the vaccine criticism “counterproductive” in a televised briefing the same day. In response to press inquiries at the briefing, the task force officials said they “do not believe there needs to be an apology” over delays.
“Korea is not behind,” they said. “The vaccines are rolling out on schedule.”
But that is “simply untrue,” according to virologist Dr. Paik Soon-young of Catholic University of Korea.
“Far fewer vaccines are available now than previously revealed by the government,” he said. He pointed out that Korea should have at least some Moderna, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines by now, none of which are here, according to earlier statements.
“No one seems to be taking responsibility for all the times vaccines weren’t delivered as promised,” he said.
Korea recently signed a deal for 40 million doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer, bringing the total amount of vaccines it has secured to 192 million doses. Over half, or 100 million doses, will be arriving between now and September, the acting prime minister said.
But Paik said the vaccine delivery plan lacked key details. “The number of doses or specific dates, not even which month, isn’t clearly stated,” he said. “The work is not done until the vaccines actually get here.”
Epidemiologist Dr. Chun Byung-chul, who serves as the Korean Vaccine Society’s vice president, said officials in charge should “commit to more transparency” in future announcements. “Korean people deserve to have a full understanding of when they can expect to receive a vaccine,” he said.
By Kim Arin (firstname.lastname@example.org