A traditionally attired guardsman – wearing an appropriately designed face mask – stands guard outside Seoul's Gyeongbukgung Palace. Photo: Tom Coyner

Chung Sye-kyun was not exactly triumphalist, but there was an air of undeniable pride as South Korea’s prime minister explained how his country had mastered the Covid-19 crisis and was offering a helping hand to the world on Friday.

“We have more experience than other countries, so if we could share it at the earlier part of the transmission – if our knowledge and information is of use to other countries facing this great challenge – we would love to do so,” Chung told foreign reporters.

Chung’s pride, many would argue, is merited.

South Korea just might be the most successful virus-response case study among those democracies heavily impacted by the novel coronavirus. While Japan and Taiwan have also handled the outbreak with considerable aplomb, neither suffered a mass infection of the kind Korea was hit by last month when a mass infection at religious sect ignited a crisis in the country’s southeast.

Media and medical professionals from around the world have praised South Korea’s management of the crisis, while leaders from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Spain and the United States have contacted South Korean President Moon Jae-in for advice on Korea’s model.

Back from the brink

Last month, South Korea teetered on the verge of catastrophe.

Following a chain Covid-19 outbreak at Shincheonji, an idiosyncratic Christian sect, the country found itself in second place behind China in infection numbers. Infections were soaring on a daily basis, reaching a daily peak of 909 new cases on February 29.

This month, data indicate that Korea has passed the curve. Daily infection numbers are in double, not triple digits, and it has slid down to 10th place as other nations see surges. As a result, Korea has “flattened its curve” and its number of cases can be managed without overwhelming health services.

And thanks to a combination of widespread testing, contact tracing, early treatment and a dose of good fortune, it has pushed its infection-to-mortality ratio to below 1%.  

As of Friday, the country has recorded 9,332 infections, with only 139 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University information. And 4,528 of those infected have recovered, according to the Korea Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, or KCDC.

“We have overcome the critical period,” Chung said. “The number of new cases has come down to double digits … we are at the point where we can manage the situation.”

Remarkably – and contrary to Chinese and European practice – South Korea has achieved this without nationwide, province-wide or even city-wide lockdowns.

“The approach we have taken, we believe, has been quite successful in the battle against Covid-19,” Chung told masked reporters, after, of course, the press briefing location had been disinfected by an official in biohazard gear. 

“The international community will look at the approaches taken by China and Korea and adopt approaches befitting their own national circumstances,” he said. “We are trying to open up as much as possible, rather than lock down.”

Even during the peak of infection, the epicenter of Korea’s outbreak – the city of Daegu in the southeast, where Shincheonji was headquartered – was never locked down, and public transport continued to run into and through the city.

So how did Korea do it?

“The guiding principles of our approach can be summarized in four key concepts: speed, transparency, innovation and voluntary civic participation,” Chung said.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun details the virus-containment strategy taken by South Korea. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Speed

In terms of speed, South Korea is “conducting more than 10,000 tests a day,” Lee said – the country has the capacity to conduct 20,000 per day, if necessary. To encourage anyone showing symptoms to get tested, the test, and subsequent treatment, is free if the patient is infected.

So far South Korea, with a population of 51 million has, according to the KCDC, conducted 376,961 tests, offering Seoul perhaps the world’s best per capita dataset for Covid-19. “The daily number of cases now seem to be stabilizing to two digits,” Chung said. “Excluding those infected from overseas.”

A number of companies are producing a range of WHO-compliant test kits, from swabs to blood tests. Multiple test stations have been set up, including drive-thru locations, where there is no physical contact between tester and testee.

Walk-in tests take place outside, rather than inside hospitals. Leveraging earlier coronavirus experience with SARS and MERS, Covid 19-specific hospitals have been established to prevent the general hospital population from being exposed to infection.

Other locations, such as government training centers, have been converted to Covid-19 quarantine centers, Chung noted. These are for the majority of patients who do not show severe symptoms – those with mild or no symptoms are monitored via smartphone app in home quarantine.

“We made good use of the limited resources at our disposal to respond to the massive increase in confirmed cases,” Chung said of the emergency measures instituted.

Medical personnel, local government officials, the army and volunteers have all been mobilized, Chung noted.

Transparency and innovation

Koreans are kept in the loop via two daily KCDC  briefings, Chung said. Both are televised live.

Leveraging Korean’s high penetration rate of smartphones, the country has taken an aggressive, but lawful, approach to contact tracing.

GPS tracking, smartphone data, credit card transactions and CCTV footage have been combined by “data detectives” to map out infected persons routes, and the locations they have visited are made publicly available via the app.

Until last week, when quarantines were imposed on travelers from the EU, and this week, on those from the US, Korea had only barred entry to travelers from China’s hard-hit Hubei Province and from Japan, the latter, in a political tit for tat.

However, incoming travelers undertake health screenings and are required to download an app and report their health condition to medical authorities on a daily basis for 14 days.

Civic participation

“Without resorting to any physical lockdown measures, we are combating Covid-19 through voluntary civic participation such as social distancing, self-quarantine, frequent handwashing and the wearing of face masks,” Chung said.

Related messages go out to the public via multiple channels, from posters to audio warnings in subways.

Although the government urges people to maintain social distance and to telecommute – professors, for example, are conducting online lectures – business continues in downtown Seoul.

Streets are quieter than usual, but coffee shops, in particular, seem to be doing significant trade, though restaurants and shops tell Asia Times that commerce is down 50% or more. On-demand delivery businesses are booming.

Thermal cameras, manned by officials or building staff, are set up in public spaces and building entrances, monitoring visitors’ temperatures as fever is a key symptom of Covid-19.  

US health authorities have stressed that masks are only necessary for health professionals. However, in Korea, a country where mask use is customary as an anti-pollution measure, it is rare to see bare-faced people in public, especially on public transport, which continues on schedule.

Given that Covid-19 is often asymptomatic and masks prevent outgoing droplets, the Korean approach might be considered prudent.

Early shortages of masks were swiftly handled by rationing supply. Citizens can now purchase them only on specific weekdays, according to their ID card numbers. Chung related how some citizens who had professional-grade masks voluntarily gave them up for medical professionals, while reverting to cotton masks themselves.

Koreans, like their Japanese neighbors, are well-scrubbed even at the best of times, and hand washing is a critical defense against the novel coronavirus. Bottles of free hand sanitizer for the use of visitors and customers are now ubiquitous in businesses large and small. 

Still, there have been missteps. 

Even after the Shincheonji near-disaster, new cluster infections have popped up at other churches, at a Zumba class, and even at a call center where tightly packed staff worked unmasked.   

The prime ministerial press conference location gets disinfected before his arrival. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Ongoing caution

And the game is not over yet. “We have extinguished the major fire, but are dealing with residual ashes,” Chung said.

Korea has shuttered schools and universities, but is cautiously planning to re-open schools on April 6.  Noting that different locales have suffered different levels of exposure, Lee said it was undecided whether the re-opening would be national or provincial. “We are contemplating many different scenarios,” he said.

And with a perfect spring now breaking, Chung worried that Koreans might let down their collective guard, ushering in a “second wave” of infection.

“People cannot say in a tense stage for long periods and spring is coming, flowers are blooming,” he said. “We are concerned about how to keep people involved in social distancing – I don’t think there is a right recipe for it.” 

Yet the government is already looking toward “stage two.”

Economic resurrection

Although Korea is not locked down the way many European nations are, its economy is nevertheless running at greatly reduced capacity amid a dry-up in consumption both domestically and, critically for an export-centric nation, globally.

Korea’s economy is lop-sided. Huge conglomerates dominate the top end, while the lower end is comprised of countless cashflow-reliant small businesses – taxis, shops, educational institutes, cafes, restaurants and the like – on which many households depend.

While mindful of the risk overhanging the self-employed and microbusinesses, Chung said: “We have to win this war against Covid-19 and then overcome the economic consequences.”

Economic packages are already in place.

Parliament has passed a supplementary budget of 11 trillion won ($9.5 billion), while the president has released 100 trillion in emergency funds to support businesses. Stock market and stabilization funds have been created, and the key interest rate simmers at a historic low of 0.75%. Provincial governments are taking their own measures, with one handing out “emergency basic income” of 100,000 won per resident.   

A currency-swap arrangement is in place with the United States, ensuring Korean business can access dollar liquidity, while the nation has ample forex reserves of $400 billion.

Exporting expertise

Meanwhile, Korean advice is being increasingly sought overseas.  

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha made a well-received appearance on BBC, and on Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a half-hour conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to request pointers. Trudeau reportedly said he wants to learn from Korea’s speedy and extensive testing and contact tracing regimes.

That followed a phone call between Moon and US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, in which Trump asked for South Korean test kits. Moon had earlier held talks with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in connection with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Chung said Korea was already exporting test kits and that once the national supply is stabilized, masks will also be exported.

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