While the whole world is struggling to battle against COVID-19 pandemic, some countries are setting an example of curbing the growth of this virus among their nationals. South Korea appears to have greatly slowed its epidemic by adopting an exemplifying approach. The country of 50 million which once had the most cases outside of China has now started reporting a declining number of new cases. As of 2nd April 2020, South Korea reported 89 new cases of COVID-19, down from 909 at its peak on 29 February. And what’s even more surprising is the fact that the country has been able to do so without locking down the entire cities. No city was locked down in South Korea and the businesses across the nation have also largely kept functional. But still, with declining numbers of new cases, life in South Korea now appears to be back on track.
So, how the country managed to overcome a massive outbreak? What’s the secret to its success? To understand this, here’s a breakdown of how exactly South Korea is battling against COVID -19 and what measures it took to bring the disease under control.
How South Korea Responded to the Virus Spread
When China reported the emergence of unknown pneumonia to WHO on 31 December, very little was known about the impact of the virus. Even though there was no confirmed case of human-to-human transmission at that point, South Korea took it as a warning sign and started mobilizing resources for an outbreak. Within three days, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) constructed an emergency team to study the disease and geared up to create commercial test kits. Meanwhile, South Korean authorities also stepped up their efforts to screen people who had visited Wuhan.
Their strategy was to focus on preparedness which they learned as a lesson from their traumatic experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2015. At that time, a single imported case of MERS triggered a chain reaction that resulted in 36 deaths, infected 186 and placed around 17,000 people in quarantine. The hospitals unwittingly turned into a major source of transmission and the South Korean government was severely criticized for its slow response. This distressing experience of the country paved its way for many of the successful strategies that can be deployed by the government this time around.
On Jan 19, when South Korea detected its first confirmed case of COVID-19, KCDC immediately raised up its alert level and fast-tracked the development of testing. Finally, the first test was approved in early February and distributed to regional health centers. But, just a few days later, the disease exploded in the country with the appearance of patient 31.
On February 18, a 61-year-old woman (patient 31) in South Korea tested positive for COVID-19 after developing a fever. Being a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus which has around 200,000 members worldwide, the super spreader incidentally spread the virus to a lot of other Shincheonji congregants in the Southeastern city of Daegu.
This rapidly caused a massive outbreak and the confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea multiplied more than six-fold in just a matter of three days— from 31 to 204 by Feb 21. Since then new cases of infection surged every day and within two weeks, the number of cases exceeded 6,000 as per the KCDC report.
Realizing the severity of the situation, the South Korean government responded quickly and ramped up testing suspected patients. In fact, more than 10,000 people were being tested each day in South Korea. Along with the most expansive and well-organized testing program, the country also put the drive-through virus testing program in place. The drive-through virus testing stations across the country enabled people to take swabs to test for the virus by staying in the car. The visitors needed to just roll down their car windows and get the test done in less than 10 minutes while preventing contact with other patients.
Apart from extensive testing, South Korea also implemented processes to aggressively trace the footsteps of citizens who test positive for the infectious disease. They used the footage of security cameras, GPS data from mobile phones and car navigation systems and credit-card details to locate exactly where an infected person has been. South Koreans were also notified if a person in their area contracts COVID-19 and they were provided with detailed information regarding the whereabouts of the infected person.
South Korea Government also focused on keeping the public fully informed of outbreak updates and infection risks through mobile emergency alerts, apps and websites. While KCDC delivered daily briefings to the citizens through Traditional media channels, government authorities provided emergency alert messages to millions of mobile users by using Korea’s public warning system based on Cell Broadcasting Service.
While the South Korean government was taking effective steps to deal with the coronavirus emergency, the citizens also started showing great civic responsibility. From the first day of emergency, people immediately followed rules and common sense such as frequently washing hands and covering mouth in case of cough. They went out only when it is necessary with a mask on their face and kept social distancing. Hand sanitizers were also placed in front of almost every entrance and elevator for public use.
The country started testing people at the fastest pace in the world and the health professionals worked restlessly day and night to provide timely treatment and decrease mortality. As a result of the combined effort of the government, health professionals and citizens who showed responsible behavior, the number of new cases started declining in the country. Though 152 new infections were reported on March 19 in Daegu, the country again geared up to maintain its downward trend of new cases.
Lessons the Rest of the World Can Learn From South Korea
The battle against the global pandemic is not over yet but the way South Korea handled the outbreak so far is commendable. As the third country to have experienced an outbreak, South Korean’s story offers some important insights that should be considered carefully by any country hoping to win against the outbreak. Here, we’ve outlined a few important and worth-full lessons that the world can learn from the country’s responses to the pandemic.
- Taking quick and effective action is critical for stopping the virus
- Extensive testing can play a decisive role in controlling the epidemic at an early stage
- Tracing the suspected people and Isolating them is equally important
- Transparency and fully keeping the public informed can greatly help in reducing the outbreak
- Lastly, it all comes down to individual awareness, so citizens must comply with government guidelines
We hope these lessons will serve as a guiding light for the rest of world amid the dire crisis.