Covid-19 lessons from South Korea: Between trust and surveillance

While South Korea has achieved exemplary success, it may have come at the cost of infringement of privacy—phone trails and CCTV cameras to track almost every citizen

South Korea has registered more than 9,500 cases, but more than 5,000 of the Covid-19 patients have recovered.
South Korea has registered more than 9,500 cases, but more than 5,000 of the Covid-19 patients have recovered.

In February, when Bong Joon-ho, the director of the comic-tragic film ‘Parasite’, returned to Seoul triumphant after minting four Oscars, President Moon Jae-in hosted him for a chapaguri party (Korean ramen); chapaguri was made famous in the film where the cook is asked to make it with a prime cut of meat. The next day, February 21, South Korea registered its first Covid-19 death. Tempers ran high and soon a petition to impeach Moon with 1.5 million signatories gained traction. The first case in South Korea traced back to January 20, but by February 28 the number of cases shot up to more than 2,000 (when the red alert was announced). Since then, South Korea has risen from the ashes, ‘flattening the curve’, or registering a drop. South Korea’s success is interesting as it offers an alternative model, so to say, without resorting to a China-style lockdown as well as a valuable insight into what it takes to battle a pandemic.

South Korea has registered more than 9,500 cases, but more than 5,000 of the Covid-19 patients have recovered. There were 158 deaths—less than 1% fatality.

Initial hiccups

Moon’s initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak was, at best, lukewarm. More than 90% of the cases were traced to the fourth largest city Daegu, a city of 2.5 million. The cases were traced to a church cluster, a controversial cult that went by the name of Shincheonji (new heaven and earth) Church of Jesus.

The Korean Medical Association asked the government to restrict travellers from China, just as Singapore, Taiwan, North Korea and several others did following the China lockdown on January 26. But Moon declined; instead, in an attempt to bolster China-South Korea rapprochement, Moon dispatched medical equipment worth $5 million, including 3 million face masks, to China; President Xi Jinping is slated to visit South Korea in the next few months.

On February 4, Moon announced half-hearted travel restrictions as travellers from Hubei (province) were barred, but those from other parts of China could still enter. Covid-19 cases rose, as did the price of masks, as did the momentum for Moon’s impeachment. One petitioner wrote, “Seeing Moon Jae-in’s response to the new coronavirus, I feel that he is more of a President of China than South Korea.” Protestors out on the streets wore Xi and Moon masks—and made Moon dance to Xi.

On February 21—i.e. 21 days after the WHO declared a public health emergency (and the day after Moon’s chapaguri party)—Daegu and Cheongdo (where the Covid-19 outbreak took place) were designated as ‘special care zones’. They were singled out for extra resources (such as face masks).

But the general consensus in South Korea was that the initial ‘window’ to control the outbreak was lost with feet-dragging response, failure to bar entry of visitors from China, as well as failure to stockpile masks for own citizens.

Economics first

Behind Moon’s aid and rapprochement towards China lay economics. Last year was the slowest year of growth in South Korea. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. China-South Korea bilateral trade has grown from $54.8 billion in 2002 to $480.4 billion in 2014, a nine-fold increase, and critical to the health of the economy. South Korea’s Nordpolitik (Northern Diplomacy) has led to a spurt in tourism with China. Close to 50% of the tourists are from China, smitten by K-pop, K-fashion, K-dramas and K-fried chicken.

In 2015, China and South Korea signed the China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement. China-Korea industrial parks in Yantai, Yancheng and Huizhou (in China) and Saemangeum Development (in South Korea) have been incorporated into the FTA.

South Korea has been struggling to manage the backlash in China because of the deployment of the US anti-ballistic missile development system THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in Seongju, 200km southeast of Seoul. THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 radar has a detection range of 1,500km to 2,000km, capable of detecting China’s strategic missiles targeting America.

Second steps: No China-style lockdown, but TRUST

South Korea took a different, alternative stance by not announcing a lockdown. Daegu and Cheongdo were first designated as ‘special care zones’, and Gyeongsan was added to the list. Instead, the strategy was TRUST: Transparency, Robust Screening and quarantine, Unique but universally applicable testing, Strict control and Treatment.

The mainstay of the strategy was to test, test and test more. Almost 3.6 million people have been tested—close to 20,000 people a day. Testing was made simple and quick (seven to ten minutes) at 600 test sites. This even included drive-through tests. Also, 29 nationally designated hospitals were to isolate cases. Hospitals adapted, too, with a phone-booth style of examination (the doctor and the patient interacted across a glass barrier), followed by a test, if necessary. Such precaution helped keep medical practitioners safe.

Other factors have been conducive. South Korea’s preparedness partly stemmed from the learning of the 2015 MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak. The outbreak in South Korea had reinforced the need for information sharing and public health emergency operations.

South Korea’s health expenditure is 8.1% of its GDP (in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims to bring it to 2.5% of GDP by 2025). In 2017, South Korea had 2.34 doctors per 1,000 Koreans (India is still behind the WHO-prescribed ration of 1:1,000).

It is also a well-known fact that South Korea ranks the highest in terms of R&D spending to GDP ratio, and boasts of cutting-edge biotech companies. Five of the biotech companies secured emergency approval to make test kits. They are currently making 100,000 kits a day. Plans to export 300,000 kits a week are on the anvil.

Of course, it helped that South Korean citizens (97% literacy) heeded to directives such as washing hands, staying indoors and donating generously.

Smart nation and civil liberties

While South Korea has achieved exemplary success, it may have come at the cost of infringement of privacy of individuals.

That South Korea is a smart nation, with 95% smartphone penetration and favours cashless transactions, has had a direct import on Covid-19 control. The country also employs more than 740,000 CCTV cameras (2017) to prevent crime and fires.

Smartphones have enabled the government to send text messages, indicate geographical location of clusters, and locations to avoid. Cashless transactions and the phone trail have been employed to track infected people. And CCTV cameras have tracked people. This unprecedented level of surveillance has been employed to check Covid-19: the spreader, the infected to targeted quarantine.

While this information is shared publicly, the level of state intrusion and surveillance throws up questions about breach of privacy and civil liberties. Such intrusion may not fly in all societies.

In mid-April, South Korea’s legislative (National Assembly) elections will reflect on Moon’s popularity and the fate of the Minjoo party (Democratic Party), which holds 129/300 seats. Moon has also announced that every lower income family will receive 1 million won ($820), which will benefit 14 million families. Parliament has approved of 11.7-trillion won ($9.6 billion) supplementary budget to fight the virus and a 50-trillion won ($41 billion) package to aid SMEs.

The world has witnessed China’s KIS (Keep it Simple) quarantine, which has worked. South Korea suggests another alternative, even though TRUST has a dark edge. But it is South Korea’s combination of factors—TRUST with preparedness, sustained health expenditure, nurturing cutting-edge biotech companies, cooperation by citizens—that constitutes the firm bedrock to resolve future crises situations.

The author, a Singapore-based Sinologist, is adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

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First published on: 01-04-2020 at 05:15 IST