Cherry blossoms splash color across the cityscape as the fresh green hues of spring push aside the brown cocoon of winter. A sense of hope and new life has been palpable this past week culminating in Easter Sunday with its promise of a life after.
Overall, it has been a good week for Korea with daily new cases of COVID-19 dropping to around 25. Sadly, the week also marked the capital city's first two deaths from the virus and saw the total nationwide death rate pass through the 200 threshold. While each life is precious and even a single death a tragedy for loved ones, compared to other major metropolitan areas, Seoul in particular and Korea in general have fared very well.
Korea has managed this remarkable performance without any general lockdown that is being imposed in most 'advanced' western nations. Korea, a 'globally connected' society, has made every effort to keep the skies open although all arriving passengers are obliged to 'self-quarantine' for 14 days. Schools remain closed and large gatherings remain banned (respected by all but a few unrepentant protestant churches). People go to work, factories are operating, restaurants remain open (albeit with somewhat reduced clientele), public transport is operating normally. Traffic was very light on Easter Sunday but any respite from rush hour on Friday night was indiscernible. While the frenetic energy of Seoul is somewhat subdued, for most of the population, life goes on more or less as normal.
Korea is frequently cited as a model case for dealing with the pandemic and many world leaders have called President Moon looking for insights into how best to manage the crisis in their own jurisdictions. Unfortunately, I doubt whether Korea's model offers a blueprint for others. The most effective countermeasure is to be prepared. In most countries, it is too late for that. Korea never stood down from MERS so all of the systems were in place to identify people infected by the virus. Potential spreaders were quickly isolated. Tracking systems are world class providing citizens with real time information about places where infected people have been. Recent arrivals violating the 14-day quarantine are identified immediately and sanctioned. Admonitions to wash your hands, wear a mask, cover your mouth when sneezing and exercise social distancing are ubiquitous. However, Korea's most enviable and most difficult to copy secret weapon is the disciplined population. Virtual universal adherence to pandemic countermeasures have spared the government more draconian measures. While many countries have had to resort to suspending political freedoms to achieve effective countermeasures, Koreans go to the polls on the 15th of April to elect their representatives to the National Assembly. There is much to be admired about Korea's response but copying it may be more difficult.
Personally, I am proud of Korea, the country that my family has called home for 135 years. In my lifetime, this country had changed itself from a poor nation, unable to feed and care for itself to a global model – perhaps the only country to emerge from this crisis with minimal impact in all spheres, health, economy and politics.
Peter Underwood, Managing Partner
For up to date information: Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare Infection Rate Tracker