The government extended business operating hours for 12 types of multi-use facilities including restaurants and cafes by one hour to 11 p.m. from Saturday. The new rules will be in force until March 20.
The government said it made the decision in consideration of the economic hardship faced by small businesses and the self-employed caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it is questionable if it took the step because it was aware of their votes ahead of the March 9 presidential election.
The government had maintained a hard-line stance in implementing COVID restrictions. Then about two weeks ago, it changed its stance suddenly.
Even though the omicron variant is said to be less fatal than delta, the number of infection cases has been increasing explosively.
The latest relaxation of social distancing was announced Friday, when new daily cases hit an all-time high of 266,853 and daily deaths rose to 186, breaking the previous record. Data released the next day showed the death toll climbed further to 216 on Friday. The number of patients with severe symptoms increased as well to 797 on Thursday, marking the fifth consecutive day for the figure to exceed 700. On Friday, the figure rose further to 896.
In such dire straits, the government let the reins go slack. It is hard to understand how the preventive measures going in the opposite direction of a sensible way is the right way to fight the pandemic.
On Feb. 18, just about two weeks earlier, the government announced that it would relax the 9 p.m. curfew to 10 p.m. for about three weeks from Feb. 19 to March 13. At the time of the announcement, the number of infections topped 100,000.
Then, in two weeks, the government relaxed business hours again.
Public faith in COVID restrictions already dropped a long time ago due to the government’s inconsistent and unconvincing response to the pandemic.
Until Feb. 25, the government clung to a position against rolling back a requirement for vaccine passes or negative COVID-19 tests at a number of businesses. It tried to pressure unvaccinated people into getting shots in a bid to reduce severe cases. Then four days later, on March 1, it suddenly scrapped the requirement, citing that unvaccinated people were being treated unfairly. The reason for the sudden change sounds far from being objective and raises questions if the government was willing to curtail the number of severe COVID cases.
The government said it expected the current wave of infections to reach its peak sometime in mid-March. Then, it eased restrictions even before the surge peaked.
Of course, tight social distancing has caused economic losses to the self-employed. However, their difficulty is nothing new.
When a contagious illness gets out of control, it would be reasonable to compensate small business losses through relief programs while taking a principled approach to the pandemic. A premature easing of social distancing is certain to fan the spread of the Omicron variant rather than subduing it. This is not the appropriate time to lower the guard. Nevertheless, the government moved in the opposite direction, though it knew well that relaxation would surely boost the surge. Convincing reasons for such an insensible move are hard to find without pointing out the election. It is questionable if the government moved up relaxation of restrictions to win the hearts of self-employed people if there is any chance at all.
The point in exiting the pandemic is to find the optimum time of relaxation while making thorough preparations to reduce the negative effects of doing so.
The pandemic must be controlled from the standpoint of a national health issue. Letting infections multiply is an absurd response. Public health must not be gambled on in the pursuit of votes.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org