NEW YORK, New York — In February 2020, South Korea saw spiking COVID-19 cases, spiraling in rising numbers following China. South Korea is one of the first developed countries to effectively “test, train, and contain” COVID-19 in South Korea without enforcing strict border controls and citizen lockdowns. Following the 2015 MERS- outbreak in Asia, South Korea has been better equipped to prepare for deadly diseases and sought to implement prompt and effective guidelines. South Korea successfully demonstrated effective strategies against the rise of COVID-19, allowing South Koreans to experience a milder outbreak of the deadly global virus.
On January 20, South Korea received its first confirmed case of COVID-19 from a traveler at Incheon International Airport. By February 17, 30 people reported confirmed covid symptoms. On February 29, there were 909 reported cases. As a result, South Korea raised the country’s Crisis Alert Level to the highest level (Level 4). By March, South Korea was listed by CDC as “the second most infected country after China.”
South Korea’s Transparency with Citizens
Since South Korea raised the Level 4 crisis alert, the Korean Minister of Health and Welfare, Park Neung-hoo, has been issuing government-wide responses to COVID-19 in South Korea in abrupt, critical and thorough preventative strategies. Most of these strategies were a result of the 2015 Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak. The MERS outbreak infected 186 people South Koreans and killed 36.
In order for this situation to have an improved result, South Korea enforced different methods. The previous lessons learned helped South Korea confront its healthcare system and the disparities in regional medical services. As a result, South Korea implemented quick and informative responses to the public, voluntary actions from national medical teams and comprehensive quarantine of those infected with COVID-19. The public received information that ensured them that their health was the primary target, a trusting method that assisted in increasing compliance to guidelines.
Strategies Implemented Against the Spread of COVID-19
The Head of the local Korean government enforced a prevention and management plan for infectious diseases in the municipality. For rapid and widespread testing, there were drive-through testing centers set up in 10 mins sessions. These included “registration, symptom check, swab sampling and car disinfection.” By March 9, 2020, 45 centers used drive-through testing including medical centers, clinics and public spaces.
In order to track COVID-19 in South Korea, the country has kept a detailed record of COVID-19 carriers using cell phone tracking technology, location logs and public information data. In an effort to control COVID-19 from spreading through travel, the government declared that “all travelers entering South Korea” had to remain in a 14- day quarantine from the day upon arrival. This began April 1, 2020.
“As of April 8, 638 public health centers, medical institutions and clinics operate with screening stations” that collect specimens onsite and provide consultations to people showing COVID-19 symptoms. Additionally, KCDC installed a medical delivery system in each region that helped local workers quickly respond to potential outbreaks of the virus.
COVID-19 In South Korea
Despite the strict lockdown strategies, South Korea remains in a contained environment with social distancing measures, similar to global guidelines issued by World Health Organization and the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Koreans are mandated to wear masks on streets and inside facilities, including potential subject to increasing fines for failing to wear masks.
South Korea-based U.S sergeant Swaray told The Borgen Project in an interview “it seems like this is something they’ve experienced before, so they know what they’re doing. And they’re making masks mandatory everywhere you go. And then you pay if you don’t.” Sergeant Swaray has been on a missionary rotation as a Corporal in Seoul, South Korea since October of 2020. By then, South Korea had recorded fewer than 25,000 confirmed cases in comparison to China’s 90, 602.
Just like many comfortable South Koreans, Sergeant Swary is not too concerned about the future of COVID-19 in the country. “The government gets people under control, gets the disease under control to people, nobody gets sick, everyone is healthy”, Sergeant Swaray told The Borgen Project.
Keeping COVID-19 Under Control
The Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation funds the global Health foundation Exemplar. Exemplar introduced an article applauding South Korea on “well-functioning national health insurance system, ample human resources and infrastructure and constructive relationships between key institutions“ during the period February to December 2020.
Despite its proximity to China, South Korea maintained a high level of transparency and openness to the public. It allowed the implementation of advanced technology to track the virus, contain affected victims and collect data. As a result, South Korea was able to conduct 20,000 COVID-19 tests by March 2020.
The international spread of COVID-19 does not seem to directly reflect on South Korea due to its expertise in infectious disease control, applied experiences from previous disease outbreaks, transparent private-public management and its assurance that each South Korean, including visitors have access to healthcare and testings.
– Ayesha Swaray