On Jan. 20, the first national case of the coronavirus was found in the US and South Korea. On Feb. 7, both the US and Korea began to develop a test kit to diagnose coronavirus cases. From that point on, testing activities of the two governments diverged drastically. Until March 10, South Korea was able to test 4,000 people for every million people in its population, as opposed to Italy’s 1,000, Britain’s 400, and the US’ 15 people per million.
South Korea has shown it is possible to contain the virus without shutting down the economy, and in this regard stands out from the rest during this pandemic outbreak. Although it may be difficult to model what South Korea has done thanks to its democracy, wired health system, and public help, the world should be at least minimally mimicking what Korea has done.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr during an interview on March 15, the South Korean Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha, says she thinks extensive testing has been the key to South Korea’s low coronavirus fatality rate, and that governments have the responsibility to “guard against panic.” South Korea first revolutionized the coronavirus tests with drive-through tests that take 10 minutes and minimize physical contact. Korea was able to conduct the highest number of tests every million in the population so far for free of charge, which no country has a system like Korea. Korean officials opened 600 testing centers designed to screen as many people as possible, and as quickly as possible. The drive-through tests are especially revolutionary because it helped South Korea to do some of the fastest, most extensive testing of any country, setting an example to how other countries may learn and adapt to their countries.
Korea’s National Health Insurance covers all residents of the country, Koreans and foreigners alike. Those registered in this program can receive one of the best health care available anywhere in the world, without minimal to none economic burden. Foreign media platforms and reporters visiting Korea at a media press were amazed that this extensive health care system allowed all foreigners, even the asymptomatic, to be tested at a nearby local hospital or health center. Almost no other government in this world pays for the citizens, and even non-citizens’ health insurance, receiving spotlight specifically for how a nation should be better prepared for a future pandemic.
As the global infected cases of COVID-19 increase exponentially, requests for Korean-made test kits have increased intensely. Regarding the innovative test kits from Korea, experts claim that the creation of such medical devices was possible due to cooperation between the private sector, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), and the medical teams. Korea’s test kits have already been approved for emergency uses by the Food and Drug Association following President Trump’s request to President Moon on March 25. Countries had first requested China’s test kits, but as they only had 30 percent accuracy and numerous malfunctioning issues, they were requested to be returned or discarded. On the contrary, Korea’s test kits have 95 percent accuracy level and the results can be released within four to six hours, again emphasizing how well Korean government has managed to quickly cooperate with the private sector to create innovative and preventive measures to fight this pandemic.
The Korean government’s method of transparent, democratic, and innovative responses have gained the world’s focus. An aggressive response has made it one of the exemplars amidst the pandemic, thanks to its swift implementation of a mass-scale testing regime. Furthermore, during a virtual seminar initiated by the French government, Korea’s minister emphasized that everything which Korea has done so far centers around the 3P principles: preemptive, prompt, and precise. With an incredible emergency reserve model in testing, tracing, treating and participation, many nations are requesting the Korean government at hand for active cooperation. However, despite the government’s innovative and initiative actions, they would not have been quite successful without the public’s participation.
Because there are not enough health workers or body temperature scanners to track every citizen, the public as a whole has had to actively contribute as well. As the head of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Korea’s method of containing the virus can be implemented in other nations and urged countries to “apply the lessons learned in Korea and elsewhere.” Instead of shutting down cities, the public itself was willing to social distance, stay home, wear masks and more, which these self-initiative actions collectively helped the nation, making the communicating, coordinating and containing the virus possible. Ever since the first infected case in Korea, college students voluntarily created a map that tracks and shows the locations that infected cases had visited.
Furthermore, emergency messages from the city council arrive on mobile phones so that people have up-to-date knowledge of how many people were tested positive from their living area, and by clicking a map, it leads to the map that shows where these people have been. These public messages relentlessly urge Koreans to seek tests if they or someone they know develop symptoms. Once visitors from abroad arrive in Korea, they are required to download a smartphone app that guides them through self-checks for symptoms. These advanced and well-wired system of Korea encourage citizens to social-distance, setting an example of how other governments should be communicating with their citizens during a national emergency.
Just like Lee Tae-ho, the vice minister of foreign affairs, told the New York Times reporter in early March, “this public trust has resulted a very high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation that strengthens our collective effort.” This civic awareness on the importance of public trust has allowed Korea to show incredible progress on this pandemic.
Prior to the upcoming 2020 South Korean Legislative Election on April 15, the United Future Party, an opposing conservative political party has been criticizing anything that President Moon’s administration had pushed for in the congress to contain the coronavirus. Initially, the government was accused of complacency or not blocking Chinese residents arriving in Korea. However, as the daily infected cases are steadily decreasing amidst the world’s growing cases, the nation sees a quite unified opinion on President Moon. Nations that blocked Chinese people’s arrival, such as Italy, have the world’s highest death count, and the thousands of infected cases early in the pandemic was due to mass testing and intervening early before it evolved into a crisis. After President Moon’s administration’s responses were recognized as ones that were truly effective and helpful for the nation, praise for South Korea’s methods have honored the nation.
Although the rate of infected cases in Korea is slowly plateauing, smaller numbers cannot be enough to end this pandemic safely. As the coronavirus seems to be capable of rapid mutation, making it harder for researchers to develop vaccines against this virus, it will likely require more help from the public with initiations from the government to fight this pandemic. Nobody should be disregarding the importance of every individual’s contribution to this issue and cooperation during a difficult time like this. As Korea is one of the very few nations that demonstrated how a democratic government will lead the public and deal with a world-wide emergency, the Korean government deserves respect for what they’ve done and guiding other nations to do the same.