The spread of COVID-19 is a global public health crisis that has caused unprecedented shocks to the global economy. Domestically, stronger social distancing measures following the resurgence of the pandemic have worked to delay economic recovery, and recovery in consumption in particular. This paper looks at discussions about the trade-offs between disease control and the economy that have taken place during the response to COVID-19, and reviews the current situation in Korea. It also explores ways to minimize such trade-offs in preparation for the possible recurrence of a similar infectious disease crisis in the future.
At the initial stage of COVID-19, disease control and lockdown measures were recognized as matters of medical necessity for managing the outbreak of an infectious disease to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. However, as such measures limited economic activity for a considerable period of time due to the prolongation of the pandemic, disease control and the economy started to be recognized as an inseparable “matter of choice in consideration of social welfare.”
Thanks to the government’s strict disease control measures to date, Korea is assessed to have been relatively successful compared to other countries at limiting the increase in the number of infections. Vaccinations have recently begun, with the goal of attaining herd immunity by around the end of this year. However, voluntary participation in disease control efforts has weakened due to the public’s pandemic fatigue and economic burden, and as people let down their guard following the introduction of vaccines. As a result, the possibility has been raised of the efficacy of disease control being reduced. Based on the results of a quantitative analysis, the spread of COVID-19 is greatly affected not only by disease control at the administrative level, but also by the degree of voluntary participation in those efforts by economic agents. In general, Koreans have been observed to have adjusted their mobility voluntarily in line with COVID-19 conditions. With the spread of COVID-19 showing signs of prolongation, there should be an awareness that individuals’ cooperation and voluntary participation in disease control are essential in order for the medical and administrative disease control systems to be operated in a sustainable and effective manner.
According to a recent empirical analysis of highly vaccinated countries such as Israel and the UK, mobility is found to have increased sharply as people became less alert to the virus risk during the vaccine rollout. This implies that mobility could increase substantially in Korea as well after vaccinations are carried out. Therefore, the risk of additional spread must be prevented by carrying out vaccination and disease control hand in hand to prevent people from letting down their guard. For instance, it is important that voluntary participation in disease control continues through mask-wearing in addition to social distancing measures for a considerable period of time until herd immunity is achieved.
Should a similar pandemic crisis occur in the future, consistent disease control measures should be implemented at the initial stage of the outbreak in consideration of sustainability, from the perspective that disease control is a part of economic fundamentals. Consistent disease control measures could cause severe economic damage in the short term, but compared to a lax approach they are expected to lead to greater sustainability in the medium to long term. According to the results of an analysis based on an infectious disease spread model (SIR-DSGE), lowering the number of infections to a sufficiently low level will reduce future GDP losses, even if it means implementing strict disease control measures at the initial stage.