A South Korean soldier on disinfection duty enters an infected apartment early in the pandemic. Photo: AFP

South Korea is adding yet more high technology to its anti-virus arsenal as it continues the national battle against Covid-19.

A QR code-based entry log system was made mandatory at some 80,000 facilities nationwide on Wednesday, and news outlets report that the country is considering using a similar system for baseball stadia.

The system, which had been tested in different parts of the country throughout June, is now mandated at all high-risk businesses. These include nightclubs, bars, karaoke rooms, logistics centers, large private educational facilities, buffet restaurants and indoor sports facilities.

The country has, over the last two months, seen clusters arise in nightclubs, call centers, distribution centers, churches, cram schools, a dance club and a table tennis club.  

Electronic log

Under the system, visitors to the facilities are required to download a smartphone app, available from the three national mobile carriers as well as from Kakao, the country’s leading messenger app. Their smartphone is scanned when they enter and their details are entered into an electronic log.

If an infected person is found to have used the facility, the log allows authorities to swiftly identify and contact everyone who used the facility at the same time as the infected person. These people can then be tested.

The system does formally and electronically what many businesses had already instituted voluntarily. This correspondent has been requested to manually sign into bars and gyms with paper and pen over the course of the pandemic.  

QR codes could provide a lifeline for the national baseball league as it seeks to reopen ballparks and generate fan revenue. Although the Korean Baseball Organization started its season on May 5, games are being played in empty stadia.

The KBO’s head said, in an interview with local news agency Yonhap on Tuesday, that the organization is considering a QR-code entry system at stadia. The government announced on Sunday that stadia could re-open for fans, on condition that a safe environment is provided.

Multiple factors are behind South Korea’s aggressive utilization of ICT to counter the virus.  

Privacy concerns ignored

The nation, a leading global manufacturer of high-tech products, boasts one of the highest adoption rates of personal digital devices in the world, underwritten by a world-class wireless internet backbone.

Meanwhile, laws that were put in place after the 2015 MERS crisis, and which have been revised by the National Assembly amid this year’s pandemic, authorize competent authorities to ignore privacy concerns and legally access citizens’ digital information via multiple sources.

South Korea’s leverage of high technology, together with a widely admired strategy of easily accessible testing and an accepted and habitual public practice of mask-wearing, are seen as key factors in the country’s low infection and death rates.

With a population of 51 million, it has suffered only 12,904 infected and 282 deaths – far lower rates than countries with similar levels of prosperity and populations. Spain, for example, with 47 million people, has registered 249,271 infections and 28,355 dead.

Prior to the implementation of the QR code entry system, technological innovations included a tracing app that all incoming travelers, Korean or foreign, are required to download at airports after their arrival in the country. Via the app, travelers self-report their health conditions to centralized authorities on a daily basis for 14 days.  

South Korea subsequently integrated multiple databases under the leadership of the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to enable fast, detailed and accurate contract tracing.

The databases of police CCTV, cellular phone GPS, credit card transactions, public transport users and immigration entry have all been interfaced to generate a huge amount of big data. Mined by AI, this automated system produces highly detailed, 14-day route and activity tracks of infected people in only 10 minutes.

Prior to the activation of the integrated system, manual contact tracing of infected persons by “data detectives” took days.