South Korea has emerged as a sign of hope and a model to emulate. The country has shown the world a path that democracies and more open countries might choose to follow.
A massive contact-tracing and testing regime to identify and then isolate infected people has shown encouraging results.
United States is now emerging as the new epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Case counts and deaths are soaring in Italy, Spain, Germany, Iran, Switzerland and UK and many countries have imposed lockdowns and closed borders.
Among all these dire trends, South Korea has emerged as a sign of hope and a model to emulate. The country with 50 million population appears to have considerably slowed its epidemic growth; it reported only 104 new cases today(26th March 2020), down from 851 at its peak on 3rd March. And it has done so without locking down entire cities or taking some of the other authoritarian measures that helped China bring its epidemic under control.
As of today (26th March, 2020) South Korea coronavirus cases crossed 9,241, while deaths have crossed 131. Some of the most coronavirus-affected regions in South Korea are Daegu, Gyeongbuk, Gyeonggi, Seoul, Busan and Gyeongnam.
Korea’s response to COVID-19 is highlighting a strong public health approach to reign in the outbreak, one that provides a lesson for the rest of the world.
South Korea has shown the world a path that democracies and more open countries might choose to follow, one that stands in contrast to the apparently effective but top-heavy approach that China employed.
Korean Strategy that worked
COVID-19, the virus that the created havoc
As case numbers grew, authorities launched a massive contact-tracing and testing regime to identify and then isolate infected people, even setting up drive-through testing centers
SK acted very fast when COVID-19 began to spread
Experience and learning from the 2003 SARS epidemic and previous MERS outbreak in 2015 proved to be useful in developing South Korea’s strategy to deal with COVID-19 this time.
In 2015, South Korea suffered the largest outbreak of MERS outside of the Middle East. In total there were 186 confirmed cases, 38 people died and more than 16,000 were quarantined.
Hospitals unknowingly became one of the major routes of transmission for the MERS outbreak in South Korea. 85 of the 186 confirmed MERS cases in South Korea occurred among health care workers at one hospital, the Samsung Medical Center.
During the MERS outbreak, Koreans didn’t know who was infected and which hospitals had MERS cases. The govt. did not release the information, because disclosure of patients’ private information could violate medical ethics, and also officials feared economic fallout for hospitals and other private businesses that might have to shut down for decontamination.
After the outbreak, public disclosure provisions were added to the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, the legal framework for the Korea’s disease-prevention policy.
Testing for MERS was also cumbersome, and doctors had to wait several days to confirm a case with a lab-based diagnostic. Following the end of the MERS outbreak, South Korea enacted a new law in 2016 that allows laboratories to use even unapproved in-vitro diagnostic kits in the case of a public health emergency.
Legislation was also enacted that gave the govt. authority to collect mobile phone, credit card, and other data from those who test positive to reconstruct their recent whereabouts. That information, stripped of personal identifiers, is shared on social media apps that allow others to determine whether they may have crossed paths with an infected person
SK acted very fast when COVID-19 began to spread
Detailed information about infected people’s movements is crucial for tracking and controlling the epidemic
After news of the coronavirus outbreak began to emerge from Wuhan, China, the Korean government activated a 24/7 emergency response system to screen all travelers entering the country.
Epidemiologists say that detailed information about infected people’s movements is crucial for tracking and controlling the epidemic.
Korean public health authorities and local governments collaborated to precisely document the movement of infected people down to the minute. Authorities sought testimony, watched closed-circuit television, investigated smartphone GPS data and more, publicizing the so-called moving histories of COVID-19 patients.
Apps were developed that allow users to visualize the information. Koreans can now learn where infected people went, when they were there, and how they got there. If someone learns they might have been exposed, they can quickly visit a doctor and begin self-quarantine if they have similar symptoms.
On February 4, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took advantage of the post-MERS reform and authorized an unlicensed COVID-19 test; the govt. went on to test an extraordinary number of people. By March 20, South Korea had tested 316,664 cases, while by that point, India tested 14,514.
The national testing capacity has reached a staggering 15,000 tests per day. There are 43 drive-through testing stations nationwide, a concept now copied in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
The govt. advised people to wear masks, wash their hands, avoid crowds and meetings, work remotely, and to join online religious services instead of going to churches. Those with fevers or respiratory illnesses are urged to stay home and watch their symptoms for 3-4 days.
High-risk patients with underlying illnesses get priority for hospitalization. Those with moderate symptoms were sent to facilities, where they get basic medical support and observation. Those who recover and test negative twice are released. Close contacts and those with minimal symptoms whose family members are free of chronic diseases and who can measure their own temperatures are ordered to self-quarantine for 2 weeks.
Experts and the World Health Organization say that South Korea’s extensive tracing, testing and isolation measures — along with campaigns encouraging people to avoid large gatherings — have helped to reduce the virus’s spread
A local monitoring team calls the self-quarantined twice daily to make sure they stay indoors. Quarantine violators face up to 3 million won ($2500) fines. The fine is expected to go up to 10 million won and as much as a year in jail.
Numerous websites and smartphone apps have also sprung up to collect and map the data, such as http://coronamap.site/. Checking the maps has become part of daily life for many South Koreans.
South Korea also employed a central tracking app, Corona 100m, that publicly informs citizens of known cases within 100 meters of where they are. A culture that has often rebelliously rejected authoritarianism has now embraced intrusive measures, in this epidemic spread.
Measures to support the economy and local businesses
- Reserve 136.7 billion won for local govts. to support coronavirus prevention and control.
- Support procurement of masks and COVID-19 test kits through private contracts.
- Emergency financial aid of 50 trillion won ($39bn) to small businesses and medium-sized companies to prevent them from going bankrupt.
- Financial support of up to 12 trillion won ($9.3bn) for small businesses to enable them to borrow money at 1.5% interest rate from all financial institutions.
- A special loan guarantee program worth 5.5 trillion won ($4.3bn) to enable small companies and microbusinesses to refinance loan principal and postpone interest payment.
- Subsidy of 455 thousand won a month to cover basic living expenses to those who are self-isolating, regardless of whether they test positive for the virus.