Turning the Tide
By Dong Min Kim Staff Reporter
On February 19, when reports of new coronavirus cases from a Shincheonji church in Daegu flooded in, South Korea’s chances of containing COVID-19 seemed hopeless. To some extent, having gloomy expectations was justifiable, and the nation has reported thousands of new cases since. However, as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic, and as countries like Italy, Iran, Spain, Germany, and the United States quickly surpassed South Korea’s figures, the Korean strategy against the virus is proving to be a success.
South Korea’s relative success in containing COVID-19 lies mainly in the country’s aggressive measures in testing. The nation currently tests approximately 3,600 people per million, with a maximum daily testing capacity of 22,000. While aggressive testing is key, so is sustaining the measures. Italy also began a rigorous testing campaign, but unlike South Korea, it soon narrowed its focus to people with serious symptoms in order to limit the number of cases that would need to be processed. Italy’s coronavirus death toll has now surpassed that of China, indicating that complacency is a catalyst for a worse outbreak. South Korea’s formidable testing capacity was not created overnight. After a bitter experience with the MERS outbreak, the Korean government worked closely with the private sector (which now accounts for 90% of the total testing capacity) to prepare the nation for the next potential outbreak. Such preparation was made possible by the foresight of a Korean biotech firm, Seegene Inc, which began developing a coronavirus testing kit in January when the virus was largely limited to the Chinese mainland. South Korea’s decision to test and identify as many infections as possible seems to be mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the country; after over 300,000 tests, the number of daily infections has steadily decreased from 851 to 98 over a span of 20 days.
While South Korea’s medical infrastructure played a large role in containing the coronavirus, so did their systematic use of technology in locating and predicting virus clusters. The novel coronavirus mainly produces only mild symptoms in the younger, healthier population. Thus, many who contract the virus do not come to get tested, nullifying the effectiveness of an expansive testing campaign. This is where technology plays a part. The Korean government is utilizing phone and credit card records to track the paths of infected people, which allows them to identify people who may have been in contact with confirmed cases. Identifying virus clusters early on, and thus preventing new clusters from forming, has been a crucial part of slowing down the outbreak in the peninsula. Such a method is controversial, however, with more liberal Western countries hesitant to adopt a system that arguably violates individual privacy rights. Nevertheless, the Korean collectivist culture seems to have enabled such measures to take place without much protest.
Transparency in dealing with the outbreak synergized the country’s aggressive testing campaign. The South Korean government has remained relatively transparent since the outbreak from Wuhan, initializing hygiene practice campaigns and informing the public of emerging coronavirus clusters. While these methods are obviously the right things to do, it is worth noting that South Korea’s geographical neighbors China and Japan are being criticized for concealing the information on coronavirus infections from their citizens and the rest of the world. Such transparency contributed to the voluntary social distancing movement throughout the nation, in stark contrast to the authoritarian lockdown measures implemented by China. Citizens making informed decisions may even have partly prevented panic buying — which is currently rampant in many other countries.
A variety of other factors exist in South Korea’s success so far in containing the virus. Innovative ideas such as drive-through testing stations and hospital “phone booths” reinvigorated the fatigued medical system. Such methods limit the physical interaction between medical staff and patients, greatly reducing infectivity while increasing the speed of testing. Furthermore, although the civilian usage of masks remains controversial worldwide, masks are prevalent in public spaces in South Korea, even when the country’s COVID-19 cases started in the single digits. While the national stockpile of masks is nowhere near sufficient, the social environment that encouraged mask-wearing reduced infectivity and bought time for hospitals to treat patients without overload.
South Korea won their first battle against the coronavirus, but they are far from winning the war. As long as there are still infections in the country, the chances of new infection clusters and worsened community spread exist. South Korea must enter the next phase of the pandemic not with wishful thinking, but with extra caution for the dangers of this once-in-a-century pathogen.
The Crisis is Not Over Yet
By Hanbit Lee Junior Staff Reporter
Many have praised the South Korean government for its transparent and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic as the rate of new cases in South Korea continues to diminish, in contrast to the rapid spread of the virus throughout the rest of the globe. Caitlin Rivers, a professor at Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Security, admired South Korea’s “stunning capacity” for running over 10,000 cases in just seven hours. Professor Michael Mina from the Harvard Center for Communicative Disease Dynamics said that South Korea’s massive testing “has shown pretty extraordinary benefit to curbing an epidemic that was really roaring”. While optimism and solidarity are needed in times of crises like these, we must be cautious with self-praise.
The number of COVID-19 patients in South Korea is close to 9,000, a figure much higher than in countries such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. These three countries recorded relatively few cases despite their geographic proximity to the epicenter of the pandemic. According to The New York Times, “early intervention…, painstaking tracking, enforced quarantined and meticulous social distancing — all coordinated by a leadership willing to act fast and be transparent” contributed to these countries’ success in containing the outbreak. In Singapore, the government strengthened the border, released information about the patients, and applied strict quarantine guidelines early on to prevent further spread. In Hong Kong, where the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2004 had a devastating impact, citizens took precautionary measures seriously. Taiwan is praised as the most exemplary case, with only 235 cases as of March 26. By the end of January, Taiwan suspended all flights to China and integrated its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs information to track down potential cases.
These strict responses by the three countries were not without costs: the economic cost from closing borders, the political cost from diplomatic strains, and the violation of personal liberties. Nonetheless, these countries rightfully treated the health and safety of their citizens as the utmost priority and were able to avoid the arguably greater cost of a panicked public and an extended crisis.
In contrast, the South Korean government’s initial response was indeed “sluggish”, as described in an article in Time. In mid-February, President Moon Jae-in declared the worst to be over — just before the explosion of cases that prompted the government to raise the alert to the highest level. The government also mistakenly considered the supply of masks to be sufficient at first, and the export of masks from South Korea was only banned 37 days after the first confirmed case, thus leading to the current shortage of masks. Despite the Korean Medical Association’s (KMA) urgent call for a temporary restriction on the entry of all travelers from China, the president declined to impose a travel ban. According to Dr. Jae-Wook Choi, a professor of preventive medicine at Korea University and the chairman of KMA’s scientific-verification committee, “the foremost priority for any infectious disease is to stop contagion, and the most basic solution in this case was a restriction.” Defenders of President Moon noted that the World Health Organization does not recommend a travel ban for virus containment. However, since the number of cases has escalated, mostly due to people who traveled from China and other South Asian countries, an increasing number of people criticized the Moon administration for squandering the opportunity to control the magnitude of the outbreak in the country. 146 countries have already banned the entry of travelers from South Korea as of writing.
There were many ways in which the South Korean government could have better responded to the COVID-19 outbreak and minimized the casualties, as exemplified by Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Faults must be accepted and we must seek ways to move forward. We must not lose our drive to overcome this crisis together. But we should also not let optimism lead us to complacency. As noted in an Economist article, “in public health, honesty is worth a lot more than hope.”
This criticism is not directed to undermine the efforts of the Korea Center for Disease Control. Effective and innovative responses such as drive-through tests and detailed reports are worthy of praise. Also, gratitude is due to the medical staff and volunteers who are sacrificing their health and safety for ours. For their efforts to not be in vain, the least we can do is to remain vigilant and do our part to prevent further spread — maintain social distance and pay attention to personal hygiene.