Thursday | 14 May | 2020
Dr Eugene Brink
The Cobid-19 crisis has caught everybody off-guard and a pandemic like this has not been witnessed in living memory.
Thus, many mistakes will be made, and the world is still without a definitive vaccine or cure months after its outbreak. Nevertheless, some countries and leaders have acted admirably in this crisis and reaped the rewards whilst others have, much to their own and their citizens’ detriment, temporise its effects and have subsequently seen many deaths and infections.
In short, how did a country such as South Korea contain the spread of the disease and minimise its death rate?
As a large and rich country that is geographically close to China where the outbreak occurred, South Korea has made great strides in the face of adversity to stave off a massive health disaster. And there are several determinants in this success that other countries would do well to heed.
First and foremost, they took it seriously and acted with swift determination. “We acted early. But much of it surprised us – especially how fast it moves,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The first 30 cases were handled efficiently and with great care, but the 31st patient caught them by surprise as she spread the virus to many others. Within 10 days, they had to contend with more than 2300 cases.
However, instead of becoming trepidatious and allowing the spread to go unchecked, thorough and comprehensive strategies were quickly implemented. “But you need to plan and to stay one step ahead,” says Kang. “We took an all-government approach. The Prime Minister created a task force of all government ministries and, crucially, all regional and city governments, too – we are a very devolved democracy.”
This had soon paid off. “When one region ran out of hospital beds, we asked other provinces to open up beds in their hospitals. When it ran out of doctors we asked doctors in other regions to help,” she says.
Testing and transparency are two critical elements in South Korea’s breakthroughs. “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.
“Testing is absolutely critical with a fast-travelling virus like this. We have tested over 350,000 cases so far – some patients are tested many times before they are released, so we can say they are fully cured. Altogether, we’re talking about one out of 145 or one out of 150 people having been tested so far.”
However, government’s response has only been a part of the story and the role of voluntary public behaviour and civil society role cannot be overemphasised. PhD student Eun A Jo writes that South Koreans began taking their own measures while government was still coordinating its message.
“Without resorting to any physical lockdown measures, we are combating Covid-19 through voluntary civic participation such as social distancing, self-quarantine, frequent handwashing and the wearing of face masks,” Chung Sye-kyun, South Korea’s prime minister, said.
The Czech Republic banned many activities and instituted stern measures early on, but after its success it has been able to perform a phased downgrade of its lockdown. Along with transparency, its civil society has played a huge part in fighting the virus and mitigating its impact. Non-governmental organisations, public media and voluntary groups have helped elderly people with shopping, provided proper information and lifted the general mood in society.
Andrew Salmon, 28 March 2020, “South Korea reveals how to win Covid-19 war”, https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/south-korea-reveals-how-to-win-covid-19-war/.
David Stulík, 2020, “Lessons learned and best practices from the Czech Republic: Covid-19”, https://www.europeanvalues.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/LESSONS_LEARNED_AND_BEST_PRACTICES.pdf.
Eun A Jo, 30 March 2020, “A democratic response to Coronavirus: Lessons from South Korea”, https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/a-democratic-response-to-coronavirus-lessons-from-south-korea/.
Sean Fleming, 31 March 2020, “South Korea’s Foreign Minister explains how the country contained COVID-19”, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/south-korea-covid-19-containment-testing/.
* All information was correct at the time of publication.