Coronavirus: How South Korea is successfully tackling COVID-19 without shutting down the country

TOPSHOT - Medical staff wearing protective clothing take test samples for the COVID-19 coronavirus from a foreign passenger at a virus testing booth outside Incheon international airport, west of Seoul, on April 1, 2020. - The first charter flight arranged by South Korean government to evacuate its citizens from coronavirus-hit Italy returned home with 309 citizens on April 1, amid the worsening virus outbreak in the European country. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
A coronavirus testing booth outside Incheon international airport in South Korea. (AFP via Getty Images)

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, South Korea was the second worst affected country behind China, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Just a few weeks on, South Korea is way down global lists of confirmed cases and deaths.

While the virus has dramatically spread in countries such as the US, Italy, Spain and the UK, South Korea has successfully taken control of the situation – without even enforcing a lockdown.

Shops and cafes remain open, whereas countries such as India have enforced a “complete” lockdown, with all shops and workplaces shut.

Office workers wearing face masks amid concerns over the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pose for photos with blossoms during their lunch break in central Seoul on March 31, 2020. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)
South Korea has not been put on lockdown amid the coronavirus outbreak. (AFP via Getty Images)

As of Thursday, far more patients had been discharged, 5,828, than those who have been isolated, 3,979.

There have been just 169 deaths, at a time when nine other countries or regions have suffered more than 1,000 each.

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At first, South Korea – which has a population of 51 million – faced a huge spike in cases, with a further 909 reported on 29 February alone.

However, ever since then, the numbers have dropped dramatically. Since 12 March, the daily number of new cases hasn’t gone above 152.

In comparison, the UK – population 66 million – saw a further 6,731 cases on Thursday.

So, how did South Korea manage to “flatten the curve” and be held up as a beacon by the World Health Organization without imposing draconian restrictions on people’s freedom?

Quick testing and contact tracing from beginning

South Korea had carried out 431,743 coronavirus tests as of Thursday.

However, Dr Youngmi Kim, an expert in Korean public policy from the University of Edinburgh, said it was the government’s speed at the beginning of the outbreak that made the key difference.

She told Yahoo News UK: “When this broke out, South Korea did have a lot of criticism. At the airports, people were coming from China and Wuhan.

“Then again, it was not that late because they traced all these patients who got positive tests: where they visited and who they met. If they had visited supermarkets, shops or libraries, they closed those venues for two weeks and sanitised them.

“Also, they investigated all those people they had contacted and they had the same testing procedure.

“In the beginning, that was easier because more than 60% of the patients came out of a religious sect. It was much easier to get the data. When cases spread to other regions, again they were related those churchgoers.”

Development of testing processes

“Originally people had to visit hospitals,” Dr Kim said. “Later, they developed further testing methods like a drive-through.

“They also have individual single booths so it’s much easier. They can test more than 150 patients with symptoms in one day. They can just walk into the booth and the doctor could test them. That helped speed up testing.”

Mobile phone alerts

A key reason why shops and cafes remain open in South Korea, Dr Kim explained, is because of a special mobile phone app which pings when there is a coronavirus patient nearby.

“People can trace easily through mobile phones. They introduced these regulations with patients’ mobile phones. They created this app tracing people who are coronavirus positive.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 27: Members of the public wear masks while enjoy the sunset as South Koreans take measures to protect themselves against the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 27, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea has called for expanded public participation in social distancing, as the country witnesses a wave of community spread and imported infections leading to a resurgence in new cases of COVID-19. According to the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday, 91 new cases were reported. The total number of infections in the nation tallies at 9,332. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
People in South Korea have been receiving coronavirus alerts on their phones. (Getty Images)

“So people can trace when they are coming near them. They get alerted when a patient is coming near your region or town.”

South Korea’s app tracing system, though seemingly effective from a health as well as economic perspective, raises obvious civil liberty issues.

Dr Kim said: “It’s a complicated issue, but the British government is kind of adopting this strategy because I got a message about coronavirus on my mobile phone. Before, I did not get this kind of message. Many healthcare systems and the NHS are assessing phones.

“There are privacy or liberty issues, I understand people are worried about that. However, we are having much harsher procedures [in the UK]. We are locked in. We are not allowed to go outside, except for once a day.

“What kind of freedom do we have more in the UK than Korea when we are locked in? Koreans are not locked in their house and shops are open.”

Success compared to western democracies

“It’s a matter of experience,” Dr Kim said of the government’s response. “A few years ago, South Korea was directly affected by Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).”

Earlier this week, a top Hong Kong doctor also told Yahoo News UK how it was in a strong position to react to COVID-19 because of the special administrative region’s “painful” experience of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, in which 299 people died.

Dr Pierre Chan said it meant the territory remained “very alert” to new infectious diseases, meaning people quickly took preventative measures once the outbreak began in mainland China. As of Thursday, there had been just four deaths in Hong Kong.

Sample testing devices used in diagnosing the COVID-19 novel coronavirus are checked on a production line as they are prepared to be included in testing kits for shipment at the SD Biosensor bio-diagnostic company near Cheongju, south of Seoul on March 27, 2020. - SD Biosensor is one of five companies in South Korea -- which appears to have brought its epidemic under control with a huge "trace, test and treat" effort -- making diagnostic tests for the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)
A production line of testing devices in Cheongju, South Korea. (AFP via Getty Images)

In addition, Dr Kim also pointed out former South Korean president Park Geun-hye was criticised for her handling of the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, in which 304 people died. She was ultimately impeached in 2016 over a scandal involving her aide.

Though this wasn’t virus related, Dr Kim said it means the Korean government “is more alert about dealing with any immediate disasters”.

“There is accumulated anger about this kind of mishandling. So it’s a mutual thing. There is high demand from the people who don’t want to see the government making huge mistakes, and therefore an effective response from the government.”

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