The Republic of Korea was one of the first countries to tackle the Coronavirus crisis. Facing an exponential raise in COVID-19 after the 1st positive case was identified on Jan 20, the country took decisive action about the virus. Although the total number of cases is high, daily raises have been declining gradually. While health authorities keep on high alert, several are optimistic that the country has turned the corner. Korea offers a model for other countries battling COVID-19, as noted recently by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Implementing lessons from the MERS outbreak in 2015, Korea is strengthening its disease surveillance and response capacity. Recent legislation created a complete framework for addressing infectious disease and gives the government definite levers to allocate resources, collect data, and mobilize public and private stakeholders to combat infectious disease. Clear responsibilities have been assigned throughout the government on containment and prevention, on-the-ground response, and treatment and quarantine.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) has been upgraded through increased staffing and training, particularly in epidemiology. Specialized divisions have been established for risk assessment, partner coordination, crisis communication, emergency operations. Hospitals have strengthened their capacity for infectious disease prevention and control. It lowered infection risks for medical workers during the crisis. COVID-19 activated the disease alert level of the country, at which the Central Disaster & Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, headed by the PM, strategies as well as direct responses. The KCDC cooperates with provincial and municipal governments and specialized hospitals.
South Korea is handling the pandemic by focusing on open communication, transparency, public-private partnerships, evidence-based best health measures, and best usage of technology. Transparency as well as communication helped allay fear and stop the panic. The government rolled out a huge public info campaign on personal hygiene and social distancing. It has conducted twice-daily press briefings, updated its online info continuously, and sent out targeted text messages. Combined with a huge rollout of testing and info on the results, fear, as well as misinformation, have been minimized. Experience with the MERS can have made Koreans good prepared to follow public health communication on COVID-19.
The government restricted huge gatherings, closed schools, and daycare centers, and asked employers to provide flexible work arrangements. Daegu city and 3 counties were nominated as special care zones and declared disaster places later so that they can get advantage from additional resources and health professionals. But the government largely avoided restricting and controlling the movement of people, and international borders have remained relatively open to travelers from affected countries. The outright bans have been for travelers from the Hubei province of China.
The KCDC used emergency processes to quickly track the development of testing. Korea can conduct around 18,000 tests a day and is exporting test kits to different countries. The government is helping create testing affordable and has used innovative drive-through testing facilities to encourage the public to get tested. Many people have been tested, with Korea having one of the high testing rates per capita. This has allowed fast case identification and isolation without needing far-reaching mobility restrictions or business closures. The high rate of testing can explain the country’s low fatality rate; as even mild cases have been systematically tested or isolated.
Korea has used large Data like GPS tracking data from phones and cars, travel histories, credit card transactions, CCTV footage, as well as artificial intelligence to identify higher priority cases and track the routes of infected individuals. Phones apps are used for travelers who are getting the 14-day self-monitoring period and for suspected cases who are in self-isolation. By facilitating self-monitoring as well as reporting data to the govt, this prevented a sanction on entry by travelers. Hospitals have introduced remote diagnosis for patients with mild symptoms, helping free up medical professionals to concentrate on those with further serious symptoms.
Lessons from the past
A major factor shaping the response of South Korea was its ability for applying lessons learned during previous outbreaks, particularly the MERS coronavirus of the country outbreak in 2015, which resulted in 186 cases and 38 deaths. In the instant aftermath, the legislature of South Korea created the legal foundation for a comprehensive plan for contact tracing whereby anybody who has interacted with an infected person is placed and traced in quarantine. Amendments explicitly authorized health authorities to request transaction history of patients from credit card companies and location data from cell phone carriers and to release the reconstructed movements in the form of anonymous travel logs so people can learn the times and places where they can have been exposed.
A large push with contact tracing and testing managed to corral an early increase in cases that threatened to spiral out of control hundreds were reported every day, peaking at 909 cases on February 29 with a religious sect in the city of Daegu. The plan managed to snuff out many subsequent coronavirus clusters at churches, computer gaming cafes, and a call center. By April 15, Korea held a national election, in which 29 million people contributed. Voters wore masks and gloves, polling centers took the temperature of everyone and separated anybody with a fever. No cases are traced to the election.
While people in other countries can consider data collection of Koreas a violation of patient privacy, the measures have broad support from the South Korean public. In a March four poll led by the Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health, 78% of 1,000 respondents agreed that human rights protections must be eased to strengthen virus containment efforts. Experience with past outbreaks meant people were fast to stay at the house and wear masks in public even before the government started issuing formal guidelines. Critically, South Korea had built up its diagnostic testing capabilities after the 2015 MERS outbreak. Unlike the United States, which relied on testing kits developed by its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, South Korea enlisted the private sector. At a meeting in late January, officials urged local biotech companies for developing testing kits. In a month, the nation was doing more than 10,000 tests daily.
Partnering on public health crisis preparedness
The KCDC is working with the south Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) since 2018, the two-sided development agency of the country, on disease-related projects, as part of the country’s contribution to the international public health agenda. Korea has encouraged public-private partnerships to leverage technology for good health outcomes.