Seoul survivor

Glyn Ford on a South Korean success story

The ultimate test of a society’s resilience and robustness is in crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has put nation states to the question. One clear winner has been South Korea, whose three step approach seems to have conquered corona. The first was speed. In mid-February the country was seemingly faced with the threat of mass infections breaking out across the country. Seoul’s problem was second only to Beijing. The centre of their outbreak was in the city of Daegu among the devotees of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus cult. The Mayor, Kwon Yong-jin, imposed an immediate lockdown. Yet speed was a necessary but not sufficient condition.

The second was testing – early, often and safely. Within a week of the first case on January 20 the government had ordered medical companies to mass produce test kits. Korea’s pharmaceutical companies are now producing 100,000 a day and exporting them around the world. They also set up 600 testing centres, many of them drive-through operations where results were available within hours, if not minutes. To date they have conducted over 300,000 tests, a rate 40 times that of the US. Those testing positive must self-quarantine. Breaking isolation results in a €7,500 fine and up to a year in jail.

The third leg was contact tracing on an industrial scale as forensic detective work. Those testing positive were interviewed as to their movements, cross-checked against security cameras, GPS mapping from cars and phones, and credit card records. Contacts were urged to go immediately for testing. South Koreans are used to government messages on their smartphones, whether warning of typhoons or Pyongyang. Here they were informed of those who had crossed the path of carriers laying the virus in their slipstream.

It worked on the foundation of a smart, aggressive public health service. The South is heading to zero. After 10,000 cases and 200 deaths, it is current on 50 new cases a day. The biggest problem is carriers flying into Korea from outside the country. There is no national lockdown. The bars and restaurants are open. The question is the political price. Do we want a future government sending an SMS: ‘A coronavirus carrier, a woman with a facemask, caught the 73 bus from Stoke Newington to Islington between 10.00 and 10.30 last night. You need to get tested immediately!’?  

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