Members of the Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health depicting the novel coronavirus perform as part of a campaign detailing preventative measures in downtown Seoul's Gwanghwamun Plaza. Photo: AFP

While South Korea has won praise for its effective response to Covid-19, authorities continue to churn out an A-Z of tactics aimed at both controlling the health rampage of the novel coronavirus and softening its economic punch.

A cross-agency aggregation of databases is enabling tracing of infected persons within just 10 minutes, 70% of South Koreans are set to receive financial handouts, and Seoul City is axing late-night subway services to damp down after-hours carousing.

Big Brother’ on steroids

In a move that is likely to win raised thumbs from epidemic specialists and generate raised eyebrows among privacy advocates,  a new system went into operation on March 26 that conglomerates data on infected persons – thereby enabling massively accelerated contact tracing.

The Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or KCDC, is in charge of the new digital surveillance system which was jointly developed by the KCDC, the Land Ministry and the Ministry of Science and ICT. It combines information from 27 public and private organizations including the National Police Agency, the Credit Finance Association, three mobile carriers and 22 credit card firms.

This vast collection of big data is amassed, trawled through and analyzed by AI. The system is a comprehensive upgrade to a previous program under which “data detectives” combined CCTV footage, GPS location information, credit card payments and other metrics to track down persons who may have been in contact with the infected person.

The system appears similar to a system Taiwan used to successfully combat the virus by aggregating the databases of public health bodies, border control authorities and national registries, while also utilizing data from commercial telco networks.

The system will only be used by the KCDC in times of pandemic, authorities said.

It is lawful. Korea revised privacy regulations under the Infection Prevention Act after the 2015 MERS outbreak. Further tweaks – that include penalties for those who do not follow government guidelines – are expected when“Covid-19 Law” enters force. It is expected to take effect from April 5, government officials told foreign reporters during a briefing on March 11.

Handouts for (almost) all

In an Emergency Economic Council meeting he presided over on Monday, President Moon Jae-in announced a 10.3 trillion-won ($8.4 billion) income package for 70% of the population; the richest 30% will not benefit. Under the scheme, according to early reports, a four-person household will receive 1 million won, or US$820. Some 14 million households are expected to benefit.

To gain the necessary funding, however, the step will require a second supplementary budget being passed by the National Assembly.

The Assembly has already passed an 11.7 trillion-won supplementary budget for crisis management. Moon, using discretionary funds available to the president for use in emergencies, has released 100 trillion won for the assistance of businesses. Bond and equity stabilization funds are also being established, while the Bank of Korea’s benchmark interest rate sits at a historic low of 0.75%.

Moon also said in the same meeting that his administration would ameliorate financial burdens on low-income families, small-shop owners and the self-employed in terms of electricity, health insurance, national pension contributions, employment insurance and industrial accident compensation insurance.

The central government’s announcement follows a move by Gyeonggi Province – the province surrounding the capital – to pay a “disaster basic income” to all residents of approximately $100 dollars in April.

South Korea’s National Assembly elections, which are held every four years, are set for April 15.

Home you go

Seoul, like other East Asian metropolises, is widely noted for its “drink-till-dawn” nightlife, but at a time when authorities are encouraging – though not mandating – prudent behavior and social distancing, Seoul subway operators will, from April 1, cease operations at midnight.

Currently, trains run until 1:00AM.

In addition to granting subway workers more time to focus on the safety and quarantine work that the pandemic demands, it is “anticipated to encourage the public to return home early,” operators said in a press release.