South Koreans are an unabashedly social people. They live and work in close quarters and love to eat family-style. They’re among the world’s biggest drinkers, and sharing shot glasses is part of the etiquette. The communal joie de vivre is a big part of what makes South Korea so vibrant.
That density and the propensity to socialise are also dangerous breeding grounds for a contagion like the coronavirus. And it may be why Covid-19, first detected in South Korea on 20th January, spread quickly one February weekend, jumping from 30 confirmed cases to thousands in a matter of days. For a time, South Korea had the largest number of confirmed cases outside China.
But South Korea—where “bbali-bbali,” or “fast, fast,” is a mantra—wasted no time in mobilising government officials, scientists, medical personnel and its people to confront the challenge, employing technology as a public health tool in an aggressive campaign of testing, tracing and tracking. After two intense months, South Korea appears poised to “flatten the curve.” While South Koreans are not yet taking their masks off—clusters of infection continue to crop up—there is hope that the country has turned a corner.
As the pandemic spreads, South Korea serves as the vanguard for democracies weighing transparency against privacy as they harness technology to fight an outbreak that has depleted healthcare systems, battered economies and overturned daily life. Seoul’s transparent and comprehensive approach stands in contrast with China, which concealed the outbreak and then locked down cities to contain it, and nations in the west that were initially slow to act.
Ever since confirmed cases began cropping up, disinfecting crews have been blanketing South Korea’s trains, subways and crowded public plazas. The government is pushing out mobile phone alerts with details about confirmed cases and spots visited by those who tested positive; apps alert users when they are near potentially infected sites. Residents showing symptoms flock to drive-through stations and mobile booths for quick, cheap tests, getting the results by text within hours. Those testing positive receive health kits with masks, sanitiser and other supplies; investigators interview them for details about where they have been and who they have been in contact with, requiring those in self-quarantine to provide regular updates via an app. All the information is uploaded in real time on a map online.
South Korea was prepared because the country has been through something like this before, if not on the Covid-19 scale. Sars swept through Asia in 2003, and then in 2015, Mers killed 38 people in South Korea, changing the way the authorities handled epidemics. Subsequent measures, including a centre dedicated to overseeing laboratory control of infectious diseases, gave the government oversight of the planning and execution of a pandemic plan that harnessed both the public and private sectors.
As soon as China released the genome sequencing of Covid-19, South Korean health authorities shared the data with medical research institutes and urged private biotech firms to develop diagnostic test kits. The first kits were produced in days. Meanwhile, the government developed a plan to gather, investigate and disseminate data, including use of surveillance footage and credit card transactions to recreate patients’ paths of infection—measures that in the west would no doubt be seen as intrusive and a potential violation of privacy.
The plan’s biggest test came in mid-February when a 61-year-old woman from the southern city of Daegu, now infamously known as Patient 31, ignored government calls for social distancing and went about her busy daily life. Between infection and diagnosis, she travelled to Seoul, got into a traffic accident in Daegu, was treated at a clinic, attended mass church services twice and met a friend at a hotel for a buffet lunch. By meticulously tracing her movements after she tested positive, authorities were able to track scores of people whose infections can be linked back to her.
By mid-March, the number of confirmed cases began to drop, with recoveries outnumbering new infections. More than 338,000 tests have been conducted, with more than 8,900 coming back positive. Of them, 111 have died, putting the mortality rate at just over 1 per cent. Still, the vigilance continues, with the start of the spring school semester delayed and entry measures tightened as South Korea girds against cluster infections and infections from overseas arrivals.
Once their crisis passes, South Koreans will have to assess whether the sacrifices to their freedom and privacy were worth it. They will debate and discuss every step taken by their government, as citizens in any good democracy should. But as other countries hurtle toward disaster, South Korea looks like the safer and smarter place to be.