SEOUL — When South Koreans logged on to a government website this month to book Covid-19 vaccine appointments, a pop-up window told them there was “just a bit” of a delay.
“There are 401,032 people waiting in front of you,” read one of the messages that exasperated South Koreans captured in screenshots and shared online. “Your expected waiting time: 111 hours, 23 minutes and 52 seconds.”
Most people in the country are still waiting for shots.
Once held up as a model in fighting the pandemic, South Korea has stumbled for months with its vaccination program. The country is among the least vaccinated in the Group of 20 nations, with only 34.9 percent of its 52 million people having received at least one dose as of Wednesday, well below the 55 to 70 percent in other advanced nations. And now South Koreans are more desperate than ever for shots.
The country is in the throes of its worst wave of infections, with 1,896 new cases reported on Wednesday, its highest daily count. Critics say that the government, resting on its early success in the pandemic, miscalculated how urgently South Korea needed to secure shots, and that those mistakes are being amplified at a time when the country appears to be most vulnerable against the disease.
This month, officials told people in their 50s that their turn to make vaccine reservations had finally arrived. Up to 10 million people simultaneously logged on to a government website to request shots. The system, designed to process up to 300,000 requests at a time, crashed.
Many applicants were told they needed to start the process all over again after hours of waiting. Frustrated South Koreans compared the struggle to that of Sisyphus. Others likened it to trying to secure a ticket to a sold-out BTS concert.
“We are truly sorry to the people for causing this trouble,” Son Young-rae, a senior government disease-control official, said last week, referring to the gridlock.
The latest wave of infections caught the officials off guard. Just weeks ago, the government considered relaxing restrictions ahead of summer vacation. It announced that up to six people would be allowed to dine together starting July 1, up from the previous cap of four. Nightclubs would reopen. Restaurants, cafes and gyms would be allowed to stay open until later in the night.
Epidemiologists warned against easing restrictions while inoculations remained low and the more contagious Delta variant appeared to be spreading.
“The government was sending a wrong signal to the people,” said Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University in Seoul.
In a survey conducted last November by Gallup Korea, 87 percent of South Korean adults said they were willing to be vaccinated as soon as doses became available, demonstrating a higher level of enthusiasm than the 71 percent average among the 32 countries polled.
When people accused the government of being slow in securing vaccines, officials like Mr. Son told them not to worry, given South Korea’s initial success in controlling the spread of Covid-19.
For most of last year, South Korea won plaudits as its program of robust testing and contact tracing allowed the country to avoid the severe lockdowns seen in other nations. The South Korean economy was one of the least affected by the pandemic. The government was so proud of its success in fighting infections that it coined a name for it: K-Quarantine.
July 27, 2021, 9:15 p.m. ET
“We don’t need to become the first or second nation in the world to start vaccination,” Mr. Son said in December. Unlike the United States and Britain, which had to roll out vaccines in a hurry to address severe levels of infections, he said, South Korea had the luxury of being able to wait and see if the shots were effective and safe.
With the virus largely under control, South Korea did not move aggressively to order the doses while they were in early development. And the consequences of that decision have become woefully apparent.
The country started vaccinating people only in late February, more than two months after Britain. The number of doses administered daily seldom exceeded 100,000 until late May, when large shipments of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine arrived and the government announced incentives, such as a promise to allow vaccinated people to go outdoors without wearing a mask and go on group tours. In early June, as many as 877,000 people got vaccinated per day.
But the government’s failure to push hard to secure early shipments eventually put South Korea at the back of the delivery line. By the time it needed doses in large numbers, there was a supply bottleneck as a handful of vaccine makers struggled to meet global demand. The emergence of more infectious variants worsened the shortages.
On paper, South Korea has ordered 190 million shots, enough to fully inoculate twice the population. So far, it has received only 25 million.
The country’s desperation for inoculations has put enormous political pressure on President Moon Jae-in. One of his priorities when he met with President Biden in May was help in securing vaccines. Washington obliged by providing one million doses of the Johnson & Johnson shot. South Korea also received 780,000 doses from Israel this month, promising to return a shipment in the future.
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It hasn’t been enough.
In late June, South Korea’s stockpile began to run out. Vaccinations slowed to fewer than 200,000 people on most days. By early July, when cases started to balloon, the number of people vaccinated each day plummeted to as low as 1,665, forcing the government to scrap its plans around summer vacation.
This month, officials announced the most severe Covid restrictions in South Korea yet, including a ban on gatherings of more than two people in the evening.
“I was confused what the government was doing when it talked about easing restrictions ahead of the summer vacation season while we still had hundreds of new cases each day and most of the socially active young people didn’t even have their first vaccine shots,” said Kim Young-ho, a package courier in Seoul. “It’s vaccines, not the removal of masks, that the people needed.”
People younger than 50 are still unable to get vaccinated in South Korea. The government started inoculating millions of South Koreans in their 50s on Tuesday and said it planned to start vaccinating younger people as early as next month.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum has apologized for the disappointment and confusion, admitting that the government was too eager to ease restrictions and lessen the pain of small businesses and low-income families who were hurt the most by the pandemic.
Immunizations are expected to pick up rapidly in the coming weeks, with 73 million new doses scheduled to arrive by the end of September. South Korea reported a total of nearly one million newly vaccinated people on Tuesday and Wednesday alone. And yet the near-term success of its immunization program remains uncertain.
Some of the Moderna vaccines expected to arrive this month were delayed because of an unspecified production problem, said Park Ji-young, a senior government coordinator of vaccine supplies. Samsung, which has signed a contract to make the Moderna vaccine domestically, will not produce samples until late August or early September.
South Korea hopes to receive large shipments of a vaccine developed by Novavax starting in September. Novavax has yet to win approval for use in any country.
Despite the missteps, officials say they remain confident that they will be able to meet their goal of vaccinating 36 million people — 70 percent of the population — with at least one shot by the end of September.