On January 20, 2020, both the United States and South Korea confirmed their first cases of COVID-19, but how they handled the situation from that point on could not have been more different. While the US downplayed the severity of the situation, the South Korean government, informed by its experiences with SARS, H1N1 and MERS, quickly took a whole of government approach, implementing aggressive measures to try to test, treat and contain the spread of the virus. They also worked to educate and mobilize the public to play an active role in the process. Their moves have become a case study in how to “flatten the curve” of transmission rates, reducing new infections from a peak of 909 cases on February 29, to under 100 per day in recent days, and with mortality rates just under 1.5 percent, without having to impose the kind of widespread lockdowns currently happening in the US and other countries.
South Korea’s experience with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 was instrumental in its ability to respond quickly to COVID-19. After recording the highest rate of MERS infections (186) outside of Saudi Arabia, with a 20 percent mortality rate, the South Korean government internalized the reality that new pathogens would emerge in the future and institutional changes were needed to improve their ability to respond. As such, they established a center dedicated to handling infectious diseases, which became a central actor in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. The center began researching the coronavirus as soon as it was able to acquire genome sequencing data from China on January 13, before the first case of COVID-19 was even confirmed in South Korea. With “emergency-use authorization” being granted to expedite the development of COVID-19 testing, test kits hit the market by February 4, and within weeks, a total of five companies were able to produce up to 130,000 test kits per day.
Testing has been central to the government’s pandemic response. Free, widescale testing was conducted, both in healthcare institutions and make-shift drive through testing stations, with results texted to patients the next day. Early detections enabled early treatment and larger scale quarantine measures when clusters of infections were detected to help minimize the spread. New laws were also enacted to allow prosecution of people who were suspected of being infected but refused to get tested, as well as to deny entry into the country of people confirmed or suspected of being infected. Additionally, strict screening and monitoring of visitors entering the country from areas of high infections were also put in place. Those subject to a 14-day quarantine period were also required to download and use a monitoring app to help the authorities verify compliance—anyone refusing to the use the app can be denied entry and anyone caught violating the quarantine faces major fines and potential deportation.
In addition to enforcing timely, preventive policies, the South Korean government emphasized the importance of transparency and openness with the public about the situation. In February, health authorities tracked and publicized movements of those who tested positive, enabling citizens to verify if they made contact with an infected person. The government also took measures to address a shortage of masks and hygiene products, cracking down on illegal hoarders, banning the export of masks and eventually taking “full control” of distribution and logistics with hopes of increasing the speed of local production and ration the distribution.
While the total number of Korean patients discharged from isolation has exceeded the number of newly confirmed cases, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called for continued social distancing, and child care facilities and schools will stay closed until early April. Additionally, the National Assembly recently approved an extra budget of 11.7 trillion won ($9.42 billion USD) to fight the spread of the virus.
Public opinion of the Moon administration’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak has been largely favorable, with South Korea offering medical expertise and test kits to other countries and Moon’s public approval ratings rebounding in recent polls. However, Moon’s legacy on COVID-19 management still faces serious and daunting challenges. The economic impact of COVID-19 has already started to take a toll on South Korean companies and industries, causing disruptions in supply chains, retail and tourism, and will likely worsen in the coming months given the global reach of the pandemic despite the government’s preliminary relief efforts. Moreover, South Korea is only in an early stage of getting the pandemic under control, but plans to conduct its National Assembly elections on April 15 as scheduled, risking a resurgence of infections if not handled properly. While South Korea’s early successes on flattening the curve have been praised globally, the situation is still far from over.