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BEZAWADA: South Korea's pandemic response was adept

Author headshot for Sruti Bezawada
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On Jan. 20, South Korea and the United States confirmed their first cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

Compared to America’s rather sitting-duck reaction in the following weeks, South Korea exhibited the exact opposite approach: Its immediate preventative measures have become the global “gold standard” for the COVID-19. As of late March, the country has reported more recoveries than fatalities.

South Korea’s national government may have levied a heavier hand in its quick rise to action, possibly too heavy for comfort with regard to other democracies. But, its effort paid off — this nationwide cooperation, albeit somewhat coerced, became the most noteworthy factor in its overall rapid recovery.

Within the first week following case number one, national officials organized a meeting to urge 20 different medical companies to begin developing COVID-19 test kits for mass distribution — kits which would cost little to no money within South Korea’s healthcare system. In approximately a month, 100,000 kits were produced daily. Approximately 600 testing sites were set up, a few of which were drive-through centers to further minimize contact, with results delivered within hours. Essentially, the first step was to test, test and test some more.

Perhaps the most significant distinction was that South Korea began treating asymptomatic cases in Seoul, as opposed to the U.S., whose main policy is to wait for noticeable symptoms or a background in severely affected regions. 

This is a visible result of the widespread and indiscriminate testing implemented in Korea, which sorts people based on risk level: asymptomatic, mild, severe or critical. South Koreans who test positive are moved swiftly into various levels of isolation or hospitalization depending on their risk. Contrary to some beliefs, this method actually eases the burden on hospitals — transferring patients into quarantine means that those with severe symptoms can be treated methodically.

Granted, South Korea had protective measures already in place, established after the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015. The national government revised its laws to allow certain liberties pertaining to South Korean citizens’ personal information during a disease-related crisis. In other words, the right to privacy could and would be restricted in the event of an emergency. 

As such, the government’s immediate reaction to a confirmed case of COVID-19 is to track the patient’s history of activity and contacts down to the minute. Having implemented high-end surveillance technology, the government and law enforcement are enabled to view mobile phone data, security camera footage, credit card transactions and more, without needing a warrant. The law also allows for information regarding confirmed cases and their contacts to be released, to keep the public regularly informed.

A number of cell phone apps are available. For quarantined patients, downloading a government-monitored tracking app is mandatory, to ensure that they do not leave quarantine. Another app, called "Corona 100m," will notify the user if he or she is within 100 meters of an area that was recently occupied by a patient currently admitted for the COVID-19.

South Korea’s answer to the COVID-19 outbreak is remarkable, to say the least. The nation’s swiftly implemented large-scale testing is a stark contrast from America, which restricts testing to those who fulfill the requirements. American testing technology is also behind — South Korea has developed a 10-minute test kit and hopes to export 300,000 kits per week in the near future.

It is also clear that the U.S. will not establish elaborate tracking systems like South Korea either. Given South Korea’s past experience with MERS, the public is willing to sacrifice privacy in exchange for the government’s agreement to release relevant information for the people’s safety. This idea of joint cooperation is outlined in the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act (IDCPA). But, America does not have the same inclination, and our country’s fierce guard over privacy rights does not seem to be waning anytime soon.

That being said, we do not have to become South Korea to combat this virus. But, their method is a visibly efficient solution, and we can definitely learn from their example of aggressive testing, isolation and treatment.

Of course, it is not that easy to adopt these strategies in the U.S., where we pride ourselves on privacy and practical moderation. But we can at least begin with something simple — like the mask.

There have been extensive debates over the overall efficacy of a mask, but the reason South Koreans wear them is quite straightforward: It is a simple courtesy to others. While ill, the use of a face mask and practice of social distancing have long been part of their culture. 

Now, it is inadvertently becoming a symbol of unity — the miraculous, mutual trust between the government and the people who established it — which allows them to overcome the crisis of a century and shows the rest of the world that the true power of a democracy is formidable indeed.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in marketing and double-minoring in Japanese and digital communications and information media. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs every alternate Wednesday.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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