Fighting a Virus and Winning: COVID-19 in South Korea

Currently with COVID-19 wreaking havoc globally, it seems opportune to discuss the most appropriate responses different countries have taken around the world. It has become clear that some countries are not as well equipped to respond to this global pandemic as others. Italy and Spain have now reached a death toll higher than that of China’s. The US and the UK have both reported a shortage of both medical personnel and conditions imperative for battling COVID-19. In fact, the US now has the highest number of reported cases and deaths in the world. 

What is important to note is that the timing of COVID-19’s arrival in different countries all around the world starting from China has been around the same period—beginning of January. Yet, the severity of the outbreaks in each country varies due to the discrepancies in response (Hale, Thomas, Sam Webster, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, and Beatriz Kira (2020). Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Blavatnik School of Government). For example, despite at one point having the largest outbreak outside of China, South Korea has not imposed lockdown measures seen in countries such as the UK, Italy, Spain, France, and largely other Western European countries. 

Instead, the response has been to aggressively test, isolate, and treat cases. The South Korean government beginning in mid-January began funding research to develop a test for COVID-19, which was then shared with pharmaceutical companies to mass produce. The single-payer health care system in South Korea made the test affordable, if not free. Public health clinics have been converted into testing centres with both drive-through and walk-through testing, and the infectious disease control centre helpline is available 24-hours. A key component of why South Korea’s response is so effective has been early detection made possible by mass-producing tests. 

Additionally, the government adopted extensive tracking measures to identify people that patients had been in contact or potentially been in contact with and their movement route through security camera footage, smartphone data, and credit card usage. Patients’ routes are then shared through websites, text messages and other forms of media. Those who have been in contact with patients are told individually by the government. There is an emphasis on making such information public so that citizens understand what the government is doing and what areas to avoid or, in short, public awareness. 

The attitude of citizens also plays a part in ensuring government policies are effective. There seems to be an understanding that allowing the government and the public access to data of people’s movements is a trade-off to containing the virus while having the freedom to go outside. To some, this collection and dissemination of information may seem like a gross invasion of personal privacy, but it must be made clear that such information is anonymously attributed in a way that patients’ identities are not made public. Moreover, some countries including South Korea already have a culture of wearing masks to prevent the spread of diseases. 

Quarantine booths at the airport, where people being tested for COVID-19 must stay when waiting for their results

For those that are entering South Korea, the government has decreed two weeks mandatory quarantine in facilities with testing and accommodation, which are both provided for free except in the case of foreigners. While for those that are quarantining at home, the local government will deliver two weeks worth of food, drinks, masks, paper wipes, sanitisers, manual for preventive measures as well as a letter of encouragement. An official from their local government will also keep in contact to keep tabs on their condition and to ensure that they are quarantining. 

The difference in the response between Europe, North America and East Asia stems from past experience. Hong Kong, which has been lauded for also efficiently managing its outbreak, has alongside South Korea dealt with SARS in 2003. Dealing with outbreaks of contagious diseases is nothing new to East Asia. Not to mention that in 2015, South Korea had a particularly nasty outbreak of MERS that was not dealt with as efficiently as the current outbreak of COVID-19. Post-2015, the South Korean government created protocol in the instance of an outbreak and a new government agency to deal with contagious diseases. Before the first confirmed case in South Korea, the government had therefore already run several practice trials to prepare for an epidemic. 

Perhaps lockdown measures reveal inefficiencies with health care systems and leadership around the world because it is evident that there is a way of transparently, democratically, and swiftly responding. But regardless, when responding to COVID-19, success seems to correspond to aggressive early detection, a capable response network to epidemics, and cooperation on the part of individual citizens.

By Michelle Cho