Unmasking South Korea’s Winning Strategy Against COVID-19

If South Korea comes off as more sure-footed in their response to the coronavirus pandemic, that’s because they are.

South Korean mask culture refers not to traditional stage masks but protective face coverings

Now that much of the U.S. is cautiously reopening amidst fears of a second wave, the country of South Korea continues to set new guidelines on living in a post-coronavirus world.

Hailed as a paragon of managing COVID-19, South Korea was once the epicenter of the largest known outbreak outside of China. One month after recording its first confirmed case in late January, the East Asian country spiraled into a national crisis after a local church congregant at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus set off a major epidemic in the city of Daegu, the fourth largest city in South Korea.

South Korean media identified the “super spreader” as ‘Patient №31’ and in the course of one week, the number of confirmed cases jumped from less than one hundred to over two thousand.

At the time, Shincheonji was an embarrassing setback for a nation that has since beaten back the numbers through a combination of smart, and aggressive policymaking. A few weeks after the incident, signs of the abating virus helped prevent a total economic shutdown and by early April, South Korea had all but flattened its curve, keeping fatality rates low in the process.

In hindsight, Shincheonji was also a unique opportunity to test South Korea’s contingency protocols and prove its effectiveness against other more draconian measures such as those used in China. By the same token and in contrast to most Western countries, South Korea differentiated itself by not prohibiting social activities, closing businesses, or forestalling democratic institutions.

But as South Koreans return to a semblance of normal life, Shincheonji serves as a painful reminder of how quickly the tide can turn in the face of common negligence.

Fast Mobilization

The South Korean government has encouraged citizens to reclaim their daily lifestyles but in doing so, epidemiologists have warned that sporadic outbreaks are likely to occur. Without a vaccine in sight, public health officials also remain hyper-vigilant in their efforts to track patients and monitor new infections.

Early detection has been a prevailing touchstone of South Korea’s containment policy against COVID-19, a lesson hard-won through past episodes of viral outbreak. Previous experience from the SARS epidemic in 2002, and then Swine Flu in 2009, put South Korea on the defensive but it was MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, that changed the game entirely in 2015.

After an elderly man returning from the Middle East sought medical treatment for what would later be diagnosed as MERS, area hospitals unknowingly became hot spots of disease. In response, the South Korean government chose not to disclose information on the level of exposure or the medical institutions involved. Instead, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare opted for “passive surveillance” which prompted heavy criticism and public backlash. More fatal but less contagious than COVID-19, the MERS virus ultimately affected 24 hospitals nationwide.

The spread of MERS marked a critical turning point in South Korea’s strategy against viral epidemics. When COVID-19 first landed in South Korea, the mass production of test kits was expedited with MERS in mind. Makeshift drive-thrus inspired by Starbucks were implemented to protect healthcare workers and thermal sensors were installed to screen visitors before entering public establishments.

Ironically, South Korea owes its culture of wearing protective face masks in large part to China. Last year’s dust crisis made national headlines as Asian dust storms from Western China and domestic air pollution literally choked the country into taking emergency action.

But perhaps most importantly, the MERS crisis had a profound effect on South Korea’s national psyche. To the chagrin of many online commentators, many attributed the country’s success not to behavioral shifts but cultural nuance. That is, South Korea was often stigmatized as a Confucian society that breeds easy conformity.

The simple truth, however, is that South Koreans have been scared into compliance through a kind of shared trauma which has proved advantageous in their treatment of COVID-19.

Political Technology

The role of political technology cannot be overstated as a key component of South Korea’s containment strategy. The mass application of “test, trace, and isolate” was taken to digital dimensions through smartphone apps that do everything from provide real-time updates to monitor patients in self-quarantine. Emergency text alerts sent by municipal governments notify citizens of new cases in their area and regularly remind them to wear face masks and maintain social distancing.

However, it is South Korea’s extensive use of “contact tracing” which has galvanized the national response system. Using a composite of surveillance footage, credit card records, and GPS data from cellphones and cars, contact tracing registers a patient’s movements to reveal networks of possible transmission. All information is then made available to the public with the exception of the patient’s name and other identifying details.

Although Western countries may flinch at the idea of contact tracing as a violation of private security, the MERS crisis, once again, opened up legislation to safeguard public health over individual privacy during times of major epidemics. Much like how civil liberties are restricted in wartime crises, the mitigation of privacy was accepted as a necessary trade-off.

The result is a medical system that is relieved of overwhelming patient loads and one of the lowest fatality rates in the world. And as mobile technology continues to stand in for limited human resources, the use of handheld devices is sometimes the only lifelines against disease.

Korean Democracy

As Western countries bemoan the end of democracy, nothing could be further from the truth than in South Korea. If anything, the rise of COVID-19 has fine-tuned the democratic machinery at all levels of government and citizenship.

Starting with mass protests in 2016 which led to the impeachment of South Korea’s former president Park Geun-Hye to record-breaking levels of voter turnout in this past April’s parliamentary elections, popular democracy is in fact, thriving in South Korea.

Part of the reason is due to a greater demand for transparency in government and public policy. For example, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is all too keen on the importance of public trust. Once an outspoken critic of his predecessor for mishandling the MERS crisis, Moon was similarly accused of complacency in his own response against COVID-19.

Because of South Korea’s close proximity to China, the president found himself in a catch-22 — close borders on China where the virus originated and suffer the economic consequences or allow Chinese visitors at the risk of public health. For a country that is asymmetrically dependent on China, South Korea chose the latter, only restricting travelers from Hubei Province as the original source of the outbreak.

The decision sparked much political ire, especially when the contagion spread at Shincheonji Church in Daegu and Moon’s party tried to impose a citywide lockdown. In a tight contest of wills between local and federal government, Daegu city officials and opposition party members disapproved of Moon’s policy of “maximum containment”, lambasting the president’s willingness to shut down South Korean cities while still pandering to China. The resistance in Daegu, a conservative stronghold in South Korea, was ultimately too much to overcome and Moon’s party was forced to renege on its plan.

Like in other countries, the coronavirus has had political implications on national elections. In South Korea, the public health crisis coincided with parliamentary elections held last April which led to one of the highest voter turnouts in the history of South Korean democracy. Still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, South Korean voters braved large crowds and long lines to hand Moon’s party a decisive victory. In short, the election results were unequivocal in reflecting a high public approval rating of the government’s performance during the pandemic.

Otherwise, COVID-19 has acted as a global referendum on the state of Western democracy. The phlegmatic response in the U.S. and Europe has puzzled if not completely astounded South Koreans who have long believed that Western governments are superior to their own in dealing with national crises. Instead, Western leadership has floundered if not completely prevaricated on the terms of the pandemic while demonstrating a woeful lack of initiative. Drawing uncomfortable parallels to China, South Korean commentators have noted lower levels of government leadership and civic action in Western countries.

Finally, the coronavirus has broken any preconceptions that effective government is a function of economic wealth. While some of the richest nations were struggling to manage the disease, South Korea was in the meantime, proving to the world that containment could be achieved through practical means.

Future Outlook

In many respects, South Korea is singled out because of their unique history with viral outbreaks. But other factors such as a universal health care system, public legislation, and digital infrastructure has aided their cause in fighting the disease. The changes have also been supported by a democratic process that has already been primed to confront a nationwide epidemic.

But even as South Korea somewhat optimistically shifts to normal operations, the dangers of backsliding are omnipresent. In their logistical analysis, the South Korean government estimates that exceeding just 50 cases per day could jeopardize their ability to contain the source of any new infections. Public health officials also stress that the highest priority is to safely implement reopening protocols while managing the risk of resurgence.

In an effort to standardize social distancing measures, South Korea has posted detailed guidelines on how to institute specific spatial arrangements in accordance with public health safety and etiquette for hosting large-scale events such as weddings, religious gatherings, and funerals. Consistent with their model of open communication, South Korean authorities made the draft available online to solicit public feedback and cooperation.

What remains to be seen however, is whether or not both the government and the public will continue to endure in the midst of a flailing economy, political pressure, and general social malaise. Because despite their early successes, South Korea, along with the rest of the world, will have to wait as scientists and medical professionals find a cure.

In other words, they will have to wait and see if their winning strategy against COVID-19 will be a lasting one.

Creative writer, illustrator, and storyteller focusing on Asian-American issues and culture // *Veritas vincit*

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