Testing, tracking and transparency: South Korean government’s coronavirus strategy rewarded in elections

South Korea has flattened the curve of an initially explosive coronavirus outbreak, even holding nationwide elections. The government’s response, rewarded by voters, hasn’t however been immune to criticism, including privacy concerns.

It appears South Korea has succeeded in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Out of 10,564 total recorded cases throughout the country, 65 per cent emerged in the city of Daegu, 240 kilometres southeast of the capital Seoul, which instead registered less than 600 cases. 222 people have died due to Covid-19 whilst 7,534 people have recovered from it. Although the virus spread to all the provinces, most locations outside Daegu succeeded in avoiding a medical emergency and total lockdown. South Korea responded promptly and effectively to the sudden sharp surge in the number of cases which started with “patient 31”, testing tens of thousands of people per day: after a peak of over 7,300 active cases on the 11th of March, the number has been going down ever since.

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Seoul, 3 February. A family in traditional Hanbok dresses wears face masks as the coronavirus epidemic spreads in South Korea © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

From patient zero to 31

The first reported Covid-19 case on the 20th of January caused the alert level to be raised from blue to yellow (from the first to the second out of four in the national crisis management system). On the 18th of February, the 31st patient was diagnosed, the harbinger of a huge surge in the number of cases. Within the next five days, the number had reached 602 and the alert level was raised to red, the highest, prompting a request for people to avoid all non-essential travel. On the same day, all citizens of Daegu, the new epicentre of the outbreak, were asked to self-isolate for two weeks. In addition, many restaurants, academies and shops chose to shut down voluntarily.

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Seoul, 4 March. South Korean soldiers in protective gear disinfect the Eunpyeong district © Woohae Cho/Getty Images

The South Korean measures were distinguished by their efficiency and transparency, demonstrating an alternative to the forced lockdowns imposed by other countries. President Moon Jae-In’s government tried its best to minimise the epidemic’s economic repercussions by avoiding a total travel shutdown (allowing people to go to work, for example). In the third week of March, during a televised address prime minister Chung Sye-Kyun strongly advised “religious, indoor sports and entertainment facilities such as nightclubs” to suspend all operations. “In the event of failure to comply with the administrative order, we will actively take all possible measures stipulated by law, including the facilities’ shutdown and indemnity claims”.

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Seoul, 11 March. The metro being disinfected © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The case of Shincheonji church

The outbreak in South Korea can’t be assessed without mentioning the infamous Shincheonji church. Roughly half of all cases in the country are said to be directly or indirectly linked to what is described by many as a cult. The 31st diagnosed patient, an active member of the church, is thought to have been behind the sudden surge in cases: having had a strong fever since the 7th of February, they attended different mass services even with 1,000 people at a time.

Shincheonji church adherents are required to keep their membership secret. An interview with a former member revealed that during mass, everyone sits close to each other and is required to take off masks and glasses and shout amen out loud several times – making the ceremonies a perfect virus hotbed and recipe for disaster. The secretive group was heavily criticised for providing incomplete and incorrect membership lists to the government, jeopardising the efficient and fast tracking of patient 31’s movements. As a result, the church’s leader, who apologised and bowed to the nation on live television, is being investigated for “murder, injury and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases,” according to a translation by NBC.

How South Korea contained the coronavirus outbreak

Fast and effective testing was fundamentally important in containing the outbreak. On the 7th of February, testing capability was 3,000 a day, a figure which increased to 15,000 by the following month. Currently, there are 118 different testing locations throughout the country, providing easy access to most people. Most tests are conducted via a rapid and safe drive-through system, take 10 minutes, with results texted the following day. An article from the Korea Herald claims the testing to be “more convenient, faster and safer for both patients and medical personnel” as it minimises the risk of contagion. The well-coordinated system has no doubt played a huge role in containing the initially exponential outbreak.

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One of the many Covid-19 drive-through testing centres in South Korea, where people don’t even need to leave their car to get tested

The second key feature of the South Korean response has been the full and transparent public release of information concerning infected patients. Local government websites, smartphone apps and online interactive tracking maps have given easy access to even the smallest details about where and what time an infected citizen has been in the days prior to being diagnosed. Emergency text messages are sent out informing people of new recorded cases where they live, followed by a detailed list of the infected person’s movements, including specific shops or restaurants – which are disinfected and temporarily closed down. Therefore, people can find out if they’ve been potentially exposed to the virus and consequently self-isolate or get tested. Such a system was possible thanks to the government’s quick access to credit card and mobile phone data as well as CCTV footage.

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A screenshot from a local government website showing a detailed account of an infected patient’s whereabouts

In addition, most Korean speakers have access to Naver, a search engine where official statements and articles can be found. The Ministry of Health website publishes daily press releases with the latest updates, news and statistics in both Korean and English. For the most part, these are considered trustworthy sources of information, as is the mainstream media.

South Korea and coronavirus, the situation now

The latest statistics seem to show that measures have been effective in containing the virus. After the initial surge, the number of new daily cases started slowly decreasing in early-mid March and there have been fewer and fewer each day. On the 15th of March, around 7,250 active cases were recorded. By the 8th of April, there were approximately 3,400.

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South Koreans are no strangers to the use of masks, a factor which might have contributed to the containment of the coronavirus

The pandemic radically changed lives in South Korea for a few weeks and even though people are slowly returning to normal everyday life, a sense of alertness remains. Almost everyone is wearing a face mask and certain supermarkets don’t allow people in without one. Many shops and public facilities provide hand sanitiser for the general public to use. Many shopping malls are using thermal cameras to measure people’s body temperature. In the meantime, public schools and universities, unable to set a clear date for resumption of regular classes, are conducting education online.

In light of the decreasing number of new daily cases, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has launched the Enhanced Social Distancing Campaign to encourage all citizens to “stay at home as much as possible”, which lists a number of precautions. Furthermore, visitors entering the country are required to “go into isolation at a facility designated by the Korean government at their own expense”, whilst residents should self-quarantine in their homes for two weeks.

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Seoul, 9 April. Schools in South Korea have resumed but classes are being held online © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

A success story?

Although the general population appears to be satisfied with the overall response, some citizens attribute the merit to excellent medical efforts and people’s disciplined behaviour. When the outbreak was at its worst, the government was heavily criticised for refusing to block all travel from China. Almost 1,500,000 people have signed an online petition demanding president Moon Jae-In be impeached for this, stating that it’s like “looking at the president of China, not the president of Korea”. The accusations also stem from the fact that South Korea donated medical equipment to China and the argument is that the outbreak could have been avoided or minimised by imposing strict travel bans.

South Korea holds parliamentary elections: the results

However, the ruling party’s landslide victory in the parliamentary elections held on the 15th of April is evidence of the electorate’s overwhelming support for the government and how it’s tackled the crisis, also considering that the two thirds voter turnout was the highest in almost twenty years. The government won a total of 180 out of 300 National Assembly seats, divided between the ruling Democratic Party (163 seats) and sister group the Platform Party (17).

In order to vote, people were required to wear face masks and plastic gloves, use had sanitiser, stand at least a metre apart and have their temperatures measured. Those with a temperature above 37.5 degrees Celsius voted in separate booths disinfected after use. Voting was also arranged, taking further precautionary conditions, for those who have tested positive to the coronavirus and those in quarantine.

Overall, although the spread of the virus has been curbed, the country is still on alert, due to a potential second wave. With the spread of the virus contained, it seems that, for a lot of people, fear of being associated with it appears greater than catching the virus itself. Once a business is listed as part of an infected person’s itinerary, it becomes a no-go zone for locals. Similarly, children’s after-school academy owners are worried that news of an infected employee might cause parents to opt for a rival academy. Due to these reasons, small businesses face the persistent threat of losing customers and even their own jobs.

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Seoul, 15 April. The parliamentary elections held in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic recorded the highest voter turnout in 18 years, of 66 per cent. This is in part due to many 18 year-olds voting for the first time © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Lack of privacy is also a growing concern. Having personal information released online down to the last detail can provoke some embarrassing situations, at least – including revelations of extramarital affairs, such as the case of the 50-year-old man returning from Hubei province in China with his 30-year-old secretary – and violate basic human rights, at worst. The National Human Rights Commission released a statement expressing concern about excessive exposure of private information of infected patients. Even with nothing to hide, there is something deeply sinister and distressing about having your exact whereabouts posted online for anyone to see. The uncomfortable question arises of whether the loss of privacy is the fair price to pay for the safety of a whole nation, when thousands of human lives are potentially at stake.

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