East Asia Compass

Responding to a Pandemic: Lessons from South Korea

31 Mar, 2020    ·   5670

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra looks at the short and long-term public health best practices that could be emulated by other countries

The COVID-19 pandemic has engulfed large parts of the world, and while unprecedented attempts have been made by several countries to mitigate the threat it poses to their populations, it has been nearly impossible to control the spread. The UK National Health Service’s (NHS) Medical Director, for example, has stated that if the UK is able to keep fatalities to under 20,000, it will have “done well.” This article looks at how South Korea, which has 158 reported deaths so far, has dealt with the crisis. It did not conceal information, there was no lockdown of cities involved, and all measures were implemented in a transparent and democratic way. Three words best capture the country’s strategy: test, trace, and treat.

Testing as many people as possible has been the most important element of the Korean strategy, with the government having tested around 400,000 in the past month. If private tests are included in this calculation, the figure will be much higher. This is a commendable achievement, considering the country’s nearly 52 million population. As has been widely reported, they have also deployed mobile test and converted phone booths into test centres across South Korea. This aggressive testing led to a clear picture of the extent of the spread, and played a vital role in how the country dealt with the crisis.

The second component of the Korean approach was thorough contact tracing. The authorities used all possible digital and other mechanisms to identify those who had been infected. Immediately after said tracing, the identified patient’s movements over the preceding two weeks were published online. This published outline of activities was extensive, and included time stamps of visits made by the patient over the two-week period to shops, restaurants, public facilities, parks, hotels, etc. This clear documentation helped the public to be better informed about the areas that were likely contaminated, and allowed health authorities to quickly sanitise these spaces. This was an unprecedented, well-organised effort that undoubtedly saved many lives.

In terms of the third pillar—treatment—given the lack of a cure so far, medical attention has largely been focused on managing symptoms and providing life-support. South Korea has been able to supply every medical equipment in the necessary quantities, whether masks, gloves, other personal protection equipment (PPE) to medical staff, or ventilators to patients.

South Korea has been justly lauded for its efforts in combatting the pandemic. However, there were still certain limitations in its strategy that must be flagged if other countries are to take away best practices for their own approaches. One, Seoul was slow in restricting in and out movement, more specifically of Korean and Chinese movement between the respective countries. The Moon Jae-in administration was reluctant to close its border with China in the initial phase, giving priority to keeping trade, tourism, and other cross-border exchanges open. Any restriction on this sort of movement to China was perceived to have a future negative economic impact for South Korea. Two, the country had also not taken sufficient steps to curb the movement of its people domestically. This was rectified more recently, with Seoul imposing restrictions on public gatherings, and using the threat of legal action against violators as a deterrent.

It is clear that South Korea’s handling of the situation can be instructive for others now in the same position. However, that the country had certain pre-existing advantages must also be acknowledged. It is a relatively small country with high per capita income, and high public awareness of issues. Countries like India, for example, face the problem at a completely different scale. South Korea’s ability to prioritise public health, perhaps based on their experience with SARS, is another case-in-point. The country’s public and private sector expenditure on health in 2018 was 8.1 percent of its GDP, and almost every South Korean citizen has health coverage.

South Korea has important short as well as long-term lessons for the rest of the world. In the short-term, an aggressive testing, tracing, and treatment approach can be instrumental in helping a state get a grip on the situation before it goes out of control. For the long-term, a more enlightened approach to public health spending, with the goal of universal coverage for an entire population, is worth serious consideration. These are certainly daunting prospects, but does the world have any other choice?


Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.