While many governments are struggling to control the rapid spread of coronavirus in their countries, South Korea appears to have greatly slowed its epidemic. It has done so without shutting down entire cities or taking authoritarian measures that China used to control the pandemic. “South Korea is a democratic republic, we feel a lockdown is not a reasonable choice,” Kim Woo-Joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University, said.
Worldometers.info, a reference website that provides counters and real-time statistics for diverse topics, reported that current statistics showed that South Korea has 10,564 coronavirus cases, 222 deaths, and 7,534 recoveries. The numbers showing new cases in the country have been decreasing steadily for the past few weeks, with no more than 50 cases every day — a stark comparison to its peak of 909 cases last Feb. 29. Now, many countries are copying the same measures South Korea has done to control the spread of the virus.
At a virtual World Economic Forum COVID Task Force meeting, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha explained how the country approached the rapid spread of COVID-19. “It doesn’t matter that my country is stabilizing and coming to grips with this. The world must overcome this together,” she said.
Early Testing, Detection, and Prevention
Lessons from the 2003 SARS epidemic have prompted South Korea to create and launch efforts, so when the next virus would hit, they are prepared. The government established governmental units in the ministries of health, welfare and foreign affairs, regional municipalities and the president’s office. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, it has been effective in controlling the nation’s mortality rate through widespread rigorous quarantine measures and testing.
"Acting fast was the most important decision South Korea made," Hwang Seung-Sik, a professor at Seoul National University's Graduate School of Public Health, said.
The first reported coronavirus case in South Korea was announced in early January. Between January 19 and February 18, it had recorded a total of only 30 cases and no deaths. However, the spread of the virus was extremely fast after it recorded its 31st case. Within the next 10 days, there were more than 2,300 cases. Reports show that Patient 31 traveled to crowded spots in Daegu city and Seoul, infecting a large number of people. She also attended church services on two occasions and went for lunch in a hotel with a friend, despite developing a fever.
The next thing they knew, hundreds of people at the church she had attended and in the surrounding areas tested positive. Fortunately, South Korea was already prepared by then. Before the cases began piling up, there was active collaboration among central and regional government officials and medical staff. This enabled South Korea's current testing capacity of 20,000 people a day at 633 sites, which include drive-thru centers and even phone booths.
"Among Shincheonji members, there were many 20- and 30-year-olds who were infected. Many of them may have never even known they were carrying the virus and recovered easily while silently infecting those around them. Early testing is why Korea hasn't reached its breaking point yet,” Hwang said.
Mass Testing and Extensive Tracing
South Korea isolated and treated many people soon after they were infected. In fact, the country has tested far more people for the coronavirus than any other country. According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, it has conducted over 300,000 tests, for a per-capita rate more than 40 times that of the US. Aside from that, officials opened 600 testing centers designed to screen as many people as possible and as quickly as possible.
Kang Kyung-Wha called the tests “the key behind our very low fatality rate as well.” “Testing is central because that leads to early detection, it minimizes further spread and it quickly treats those found with the virus,” she said.
Reports show that patients are tested at drive-through stations without leaving their cars. The 10-minute process includes a remote temperature scan, filling out a questionnaire, and a throat swab. Test results are usually back within hours. In transparent phone booths, health administers test patients through throat swabs using thick rubber gloves built into the chamber’s walls. Many establishments were also instructed to use thermal image cameras to identify people with fevers. Many restaurants check customers’ temperatures before accepting them.
Also, South Korean officials have been digitally monitoring lower-risk patients under quarantine and requiring visiting travelers to enter their symptoms into an app. According to NBC News, an online site that covers breaking news, videos, and the latest top stories in world news, business, politics, health and pop culture, they use sites like Corona Map to generate real-time updates about where current patients are located. While this may result in privacy concerns, people in South Korea have expressed their willingness to forgo privacy rights.
A recent survey conducted by Seoul National University's Graduate School of Public Health revealed that 78.9% of respondents agreed that they would sacrifice the protection of their privacy rights to help prevent a national epidemic. Prof. Ju Youngkee, who teaches health and data journalism at Hallym University, said that this shows the people’s willingness to pay the digital cost of state surveillance in the name of public safety.
Transparency and Accountability
From the very start of the pandemic, the South Korean government has been open with their people about the coronavirus. Leaders keep their citizens fully informed and ask for their cooperation. Kim Gang-lip, South Korea’s vice health minister, said that alerts are being provided through television broadcasts, subway station announcements, and smartphone notifications. They keep on encouraging everyone to wear face masks and maintain social distancing.
According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, Foreign Minister Kang explained that being open with people and securing their trust is vitally important. “The key to our success has been absolute transparency with the public – sharing every detail of how this virus is evolving, how it is spreading and what the government is doing about it, warts and all,” he said.