iStock(DAEGU, South Korea) — Hundreds lined up outside the E-mart store in Daegu, South Korea, before its opening on Monday morning as the supermarket chain is selling a high-demand item: face masks. Twenty-one million face masks were sold in two locations on Monday alone, and sales are now limited to 30 masks per person.
Fear is slowly gripping Daegu, designated a “special management zone” along with a nearby hospital where six patients died due to the latest novel coronavirus outbreak.
In this city of 2.5 million residents, eerie silence lies in the streets, businesses hang “closed” signs, and there are just a small number of people out to find daily necessities. The residents — and anyone who has visited the area — are advised to stay home and minimize movement outdoors for the next two weeks.
Patients surge 16-fold in five days
South Korea reported 231 additional cases of the novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, and three more deaths, mostly in patients with preexisting conditions. A female dependent member of the U.S. Forces Korea, 61, also tested positive, according to a statement released by USFK.
The total as of Monday, 4 p.m. local, stands at 833 cases, a shocking 16-fold rise in just five days. Eight people have died. Almost 60% of all confirmed cases are from the Daegu area.
Health authorities are struggling to keep up with the growing number of confirmed patients; hospitals in and around Daegu area are quickly preparing wards, and the government is looking for medical staff volunteers to help with the unprecedented crisis.
“For now, we have 240 beds prepared for coronavirus patients. Not all patients at this hospital are in negative pressure rooms; it’s more important that we isolate the infected patients and monitor their conditions,” Dr. Chung Woojin, who is in charge of the coronavirus situation at the Keimyung University Dongsan Hospital, told ABC News.
Fear disrupts daily lives
There is nationwide fear that the outbreak may be getting out of control.
Stores and pharmacies in Seoul have few remaining face masks, and many are limiting the number a customer can buy. Online sites selling masks have thousands of users on the waiting list just to log in.
“People lined up in front of E-mart because the face masks were sold at a cheap price this morning, less than 1,000 won,” Kim Kyuri, 30, a resident in Daegu, told ABC News Monday.
All public schools, which are currently on winter vacation, will resume classes a week delayed on March 9. Movie theaters are empty, scheduled concerts and sports events have been postponed or cancelled, and the National Assembly cancelled its plenary session after the building was closed for 24 hours when a confirmed patient attended a forum there.
Even people hosting weddings and funerals are advised to keep the events to a small scale.
Samsung and SK — South Korea’s largest conglomerates, employing hundreds of thousands of workers — have said that all employees, except for essential staff, should be working from home until further notice.
Tech-savvy ways to avoid infection
Software developers have launched mobile apps for users to figure out where confirmed patients of the virus have been.
Coronaita, a free app, shows how many places within 3 kilometers were visited by a confirmed case patient at certain locations. Another app, CoBack, automatically rings an alarm within 100 meters.
CoronaNow, a website put together by high school students in Daegu, carries official data and latest COVID-19 news released by the government and health authorities. The web donates all profits from advertising banners to send masks to Daegu citizens in need.
“I try to avoid routes that the virus confirmed patients have passed through,” Yoo Yongsu, a college student who uses the app before going outside, told ABC News. “When the app says zero within 3 kilometers, I can go out feeling relieved.”
Public anger, bleak future
The sense of emergency became official when South Korean President Moon Jae-In raised the alert level for the coronavirus to its highest point on Sunday. But there is anger among the public that the government could have contained the spread had it realized the urgency earlier, as many experts had warned.
The head of the ruling Democratic party, Lee InYoung, said the country is “slowly winning” the fight against COVID-19 less than three weeks ago. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told the distressed public on Feb. 13 that there is no need to wear face masks in less crowded places. On the same day, President Moon drew a rosy picture, saying the spread of the virus “will come to an end in the near future.”
“This is absolutely crazy; I can’t believe the government ignored all those warning signs. Even we knew that it would take two weeks before the outbreak becomes visible,” Ji-soo Kim, a clothing shop owner in Seoul, told ABC News. “Now I am really afraid. What’s becoming of our country?”
The situation does seem to be quickly becoming more dire. Authorities significantly increased the total number of tests on Monday, so as of 10:30 pm local time, 11,631 people are in the process of getting tested, up from 8,057 people the same time the night before.
The government says it must contain this fast-spreading virus in Daegu within four weeks or else, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a press briefing, “there would be a large possibility [that the illness] spreads nationwide.”
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