South Korea: a stellar example of how to fight a pandemic?

South Korea’s management of the COVID-19 crisis has been hailed as a success story throughout the past year. Reflecting on the past year, one may question why other countries have not controlled the virus as well as South Korea has. However, when looking deeper there are many reasons which explain South Korea’s success in the fight against COVID-19.

Is South Korea a success story?

In the USA, 8.9% of the population have been infected with the deadly virus compared to a mere 0.17% in South Korea. Why have two countries plagued with the same virus fared so differently? Should South Korea be applauded for its success? More importantly, what can countries hit hard by the pandemic learn from South Korea’s approach?

Culture and Masks

South Korea’s history and culture set it apart from many western societies. It is a state built around solidarity and ensuring that everyone is cared for by their fellow citizens. The importance of health in its constitution is clear, with Article 34 stating no citizen should suffer unaided or unprotected from disease. South Korean values prioritise health above freedom, which is not the case in western societies such as the USA. South Korea’s culture of collective action has helped it manage the pandemic.

In June only 62% of Americans practiced mask-wearing and as of 24th March, seventeen states had no mask mandates. Similarly, it was only after months into the pandemic that masks became compulsory and widely worn in the UK, whereas South Korea took action much faster, encouraging mask-wearing since February 2020. In South Korea, nearly one-fifth of the population was already wearing a mask pre-COVID and nine in ten Koreans have practiced mask-wearing since the start of the pandemic in February. South Koreans were ready to make immediate changes to their lives to slow the spread of the virus.

South Korea’s preparedness for the pandemic may be in part due to masks being made fashionable. Popular bands such as BTS and other K-POP artists wore masks before the pandemic, encouraging many of their fans to wear them when COVID-19 hit in 2020. Big brands such as UNIQLO created ranges of masks for different weather and occasions to ensure that there was no reason for people not to wear a mask. Korea’s collectivist and popular cultures helped drive the uptake of mask-wearing. South Koreans saw masks as an accessory allowing them to emulate their favourite celebrities while also protecting their neighbours.

Past Lessons Learnt: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)

Unlike many western states, South Korea faced the onslaught of the MERS virus in 2015. Having faced a similar health crisis to that posed by COVID-19 only five years earlier, South Koreans were aware of and accustomed to the measures necessary to manage a pandemic, and the government had the processes necessary for a swift and sophisticated response already in place. A poll carried out last year reveals that after experiencing MERS and the ensuing restrictions South Koreans are more willing to follow tested protocols such as mask-wearing and are more compliant with contact tracing. In contrast, the USA took much longer to take action and to contact trace patients, allowing the virus to spread unchecked.

In the early days of the pandemic, South Korea began tracking international arrivals and ensuring that everyone entering the country obeyed its laws. Travel restrictions and monitoring of arrivals kept its citizens safe from infectious visitors. Additionally, South Korea set up wide testing early on for asymptomatic patients and created Community Treatment Centres (CTCs) to allow those with positive tests but mild or no symptoms to be monitored and isolated outside of hospitals. Buildings were renovated and rooms were created to allow for these centres to be built. The CTCs provided better care and isolation for those infected, and South Korea has been widely praised in the news and medical journals for this policy.

Technology and Tracking

Technology also played a key role in South Korea’s fight against COVID-19. South Korea has made effective use of contact tracing by utilizing cameras and a symptom-reporting app and by tracking transactions ,ensuring that health authorities can alert those who may be at risk to get tested. While other states have used apps such as the UK’s “NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app”, the willingness of South Korea’s population to comply with contact tracing has contributed to the success of these initiatives. South Koreans were willing to sacrifice their personal freedoms and privacy for the benefit of public health. The nation’s authorities also took steps to limit the spread of disinformation, preventing COVID-19 denial stories from getting press coverage and views on social media, bolstering the population’s compliance with COVID restrictions.

Looking to the future

After COVID-19 struck, South Korea rebounded. Despite the setback posed by a new peak in cases in late 2020 and concerns about an economic crisis around the same time, South Korea has continued to effectively manage the virus. The concerted national response means that South Korea started 2021 with positive economic projections and that it is beginning an ambitious vaccine program. Although the pandemic is not over, South Korea has shown that it is prepared for pandemics and that its citizens are willing to make the sacrifices  needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.