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[Editorial] 3 years under COVID-19

Premature to lower guard against the virus even if mask mandate is lifted

Jan. 20, 2023 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

The first COVID-19 case was confirmed in South Korea on Jan. 20, 2020. Since then, every aspect of Korean life has been drastically reshaped to grapple with the pandemic, and the public health authorities are still waging a tough fight to keep the virus under control.

The unprecedented pandemic has left a dreadful impact, having infected over 670 million people worldwide so far, around 6.7 million of whom died from the virus, according to latest official data available. The actual fatalities, especially in China where COVID-19 data disclosure remains opaque, might be much higher than the official figures show.

Data on COVID-19 infections here show that nearly 30 million people have been infected, leaving at least 33,000 dead. Until now, seven waves of infection have hit the nation, forcing people at various times to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, start remote work and online classes, cut business hours and refrain from holding and attending public events.

Following strict social distancing rules, the majority of Koreans took vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections despite lingering worries about their side effects. The government actively took a variety of preventive measures to protect the public against the coronavirus. Not all COVID-19 policies proved effective, but it remains a fact that health authorities, medical professionals and individuals all worked together to contain the highly transmissible disease.

Thanks to the continued efforts, there are signs that people are steadily getting back to a normal life. Regular business hours have been restored. Most disease control measures have been lifted. The outdoor mask mandate was removed in September.

The indoor mask mandate is also expected to be lifted by the end of this month. The Expert Committee on Infectious Disease Crisis Management, an advisory body, said Wednesday that three out of four conditions for lifting compulsory indoor masking have been met, and the nation has already passed the peak of infections and entered a stable period. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters is set to hold a meeting and decide the exact date for lifting the indoor mask mandate.

There has been some mixed views about whether the government should keep indoor mask-wearing mandatory, but the public opinion is largely in favor of lifting the regulation. In a recent survey of 1,666 people by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 74.8 percent of respondents said they want the government to lift the compulsory indoor mask mandate. Interestingly, 53.4 percent of respondents want a gradual lifting of the mandate, depending on the type of facility, while 21.4 percent want an immediate lifting across the board.

The effectiveness of masks without other social distancing measures is also being questioned. For instance, people tend to wear masks until they enter restaurants but take them off when they start eating, a widespread practice that begs the question whether the indoor mask mandate is effective.

But some argue that masks are still needed indoors as part of efforts to keep the public on guard against infections, including a new resurgence sparked by a highly transmissible variant in the future.

The level of public awareness demonstrated through mask wearing in Korea is still high. After all, even though wearing a mask outside is not mandatory, most people are still wearing masks in the streets, which reflects their concerns about infection risks in all environments.

The daily confirmed case counts in the past week declined to 32,866, down from around 40,000 a week earlier, and other indicators suggest the country is moving toward the post-COVID phase. But the fight against COVID-19 is not over yet. The government should not give a wrong impression that it’s time to lower our guard, reminding people of the fact that a mix of basic hygiene practices, vaccination and masking remains the most effective way to prevent infection.