The “scary” Seoul nightclub outbreak shows the world it is safe to reopen wholesale

Photo by מתן שגב from Pexels

Do you remember how a week or two ago, the major media were breathlessly reporting on the scary new outbreak in the South Korean capital? The Korean authorities had supposedly rested too happily on their laurels, allowed even nightclubs to reopen and paid the price for their nonchalance. Or at least so the predominant narrative went.

It all started during the night between May 1 and May 2 when a 29-year-old man infected with SARS-CoV-2 visited several nightclubs in the Seoul area. Several thousand people were potentially exposed. By May 17, at least 168 cases arising from this outbreak had been identified.

The reaction by the mainstream media outlets was entirely predictable. Vox sided with the South Korean president in his gloomy prediction:

But the uptick in cases has officials fearing the worst, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday telling residents to “brace for the pandemic’s second wave” and warning that the country faces a “prolonged” war against the virus.

Amy Gunya writing in Time wondered whether the nightclub outbreak threatened to derail South Korea’s success. She approvingly cited the consensus of all the serious people that we were in for a new normal in which “we will see cycles of easing of restrictions, then tightening again, until we have reached population levels of immunity that would be protective — either from a vaccine or from enough people being infected.”

Of course, the Korean officials did not just give interviews, they also turned back to the tried-and-true tactic of smartly focusing test and trace efforts on concentrated outbreaks. They appear to have conducted thousands of tests among the identified club-goers and their contacts, just as they had done it previously with the evangelical sect in Daegu or the Seoul call center.

The Korean authorities, nonetheless, succumbed to panic and ordered all the Seoul bars and nightclubs to shut again. But could it be that they and the media got scared a bit too fast?

Now, almost three weeks have passed since the outbreak night, and we can look at the famously reliable South Korean Covid-19 data and see whether the scary second wave has materialized.

What the data reveal is not a tsunami but a barely visible bump. There have been more daily confirmed cases in May on average than in the second half of April but the numbers are still a far cry from the late February or even March ones. There has not been a single death publicly linked to the nightclub outbreak. It appears to have been almost a non-event, certainly not something deserving dramatic coverage.

With reasonable test and trace in place, countries can get back to normal, wholesale

So, to recap, despite the fact that an infected person spread SARS-CoV-2 to almost two hundred people at Seoul nightclubs, three weeks later, we can reasonably conclude that the worst expectations had been unfounded. What does this experience tell us?

In my view, the upshot is that with reasonable test-and-trace capacity in place, countries without massive epidemics can just reopen wholesale. By reasonable test and trace capacity, I do not mean some crazy social control schemes like testing 10% of the population per day. South Korea never approached these numbers even remotely, faced the mother of all superspreader events and several significant clusters after it, and is doing just fine, nonetheless.

Its Covid-19 experience shows that it suffices to contain major clusters of infection to avoid a society-wide crisis and keep life close-to-normal. This is good news, and recognizing this is crucial to stop the massive self-inflicted impoverishment most of the world has been engaged in since early March, even beyond the temporary lockdowns.

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