The country has recorded 9,478 infections, with only 144 deaths
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun was not exactly triumphalist, but there was an air of undeniable pride as he 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 said, reporters Asia Times.
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.
As of Saturday, the country has recorded 9,478 infections, with only 144 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University information. And 4,811 of those infected have recovered, according to the Korea Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention, or KCDC.
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.
Other locations, such as government training centres, have been converted to Covid-19 quarantine centres, 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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. Yet the government is already looking toward “stage two.”
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. Economic packages are already in place.
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.