Korea: Pariah to Paragon
Korea was the first country outside of China to be hit by a major outbreak of COVID-19. We were quickly labeled a 'hot-spot' and travelers from Korea were restricted from entering many countries. It is worthy to note that over 30% of all air passengers into Korea come from China. Initially, I was critical of the Korean government for failing to restrict inbound traffic from China but I have come to realize that sealing borders is fruitless and sends an incorrect message that "this is a foreign disease we can shut out" when in fact, it is now very much a local one in every affected country that can only be managed at the local level.
The first COVID-19 patient was identified in Korea on 20 January. Screening of inbound travelers was implemented at all international airports. (The systems have been in place since SARS.) Public announcements exhorting people to wash their hands thoroughly, cover their mouth and wear a mask were posted everywhere. A month later (February 20), there were 30 confirmed cases but the number quickly began to grow exponentially.
The government reacted very rapidly. Schools were closed, large gatherings were postponed or canceled, all trade shows and sporting events were canceled, 'social distancing' (staying a meter away from others) was recommended, and the 'hotspot' of Daegu (Korea’s 3rd largest city and the location of over 70% of all cases), was put themselves in voluntary 'self-quarantine'. From 7 March, churches were urged to suspend Sunday services. Rapid follow-up with anyone who had been in contact with a confirmed patient was implemented and mandatory testing and/or quarantine imposed. In parallel, massive disinfection efforts have been deployed in airplanes, public transportation (with 75 million riders per annum), restaurants, public buildings and even the streets of Daegu.
What is most notable about Korea is that transparent, factual and comprehensive information on the spread of the disease (number of people tested, test results, new patients, fatalities, and an app tracking the recent routes of confirmed cases), was made available to everyone in real time. Widespread testing (with results available in as little as 2 hours) was implemented including a creative 'drive through' testing system that isolated those being tested from health care personnel. (Korea anticipated this outbreak in response to SARS and MERS and had test kits ready to deploy.) Korea is testing 15,000 people per day (more than the sum total that the United States has tested to date) with a total of over 250,000 citizens tested. The cost of testing is affordable (less than $150) with waivers for confirmed patients and the financially disadvantaged. Interestingly, Korea has not banned travel to or from any country!
The national health system has been able to manage all confirmed cases and no one has been turned away from the hospital, even in the virus’s epicenter in the city of Daegu. Korea has taken special care of its elderly with volunteers providing assistance, and priority given to providing masks and protective gear. Even Korea's elderly are highly 'connected' with near universal penetration of smartphones. The whole community follows emergency alerts (which are broadcast nearly every hour) updating the numbers and locations of confirmed patients. Furthermore, they are able to summon help when needed.
Not only have all citizens been urged to wear masks, the distribution of masks has been organized fairly and transparently via pharmacies, post offices and farmer’s cooperatives. Waiting times in lines have shrunk from hours to minutes. Each citizen is entitled to two masks per week. The price is fixed so gouging is impossible. Each purchase is registered so there is public confidence that no one is using influence or connections to beat the system.
The civic response to COVID-19 in Korea must not be underestimated. Citizens have risen to the challenge. Panic-buying and hoarding are non-existent. With the exception of masks (see above) there are no products that are unavailable and no bare shelves in the supermarkets. Mrs. Kim (who took care of our daughter when she was young and is now in her 80s) told us she had seen reports there was a shortage of toilet paper and rushed to the supermarket to buy some. Seeing that the shelves were fully stocked, she realized that she was being foolish and returned home without buying any.
Korea's aggressive response seems to have been effective. Now, less than four weeks since the crisis exploded, we have had seven straight days of a declining number of newly diagnosed patients (with only one 'bump' in the middle). The number of new cases on 15 March was 75. Since 12 March, the number of patients who have recovered from the disease and been discharged from hospital exceeded the number of new cases. While this is no time to be complacent and we are not out of the woods yet, all indications are that Korea has met the challenge and appears to be getting the upper hand.
I observe Korea's response to COVID-19 with a mixture of pride and humbleness. As a life-long resident of Seoul (and fourth generation American to live here), I have always been proud of this country and its achievements. Having witnessed the transition from a 'basket case' of poverty and starvation to a modern, vibrant, dynamic nation of abundance, it is a model to the world. At the same time, I have been a sometime vocal critic of the government, the education system and corporate culture and urged changes to meet the uncertain challenges of the future. However, Korea performs well in crises. All levels of government have exceeded my expectations. The response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been exemplary and is being referenced in many other countries as a model to follow now and for the next outbreak that is bound to come. It is time for the globe to remove Korea from the banned country list and to respect that the response here was mature, rational, democratic and most importantly, effective.
Peter Underwood, Managing Partner
For up to date information: Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare Infection Rate Tracker