COVID-19 popularly known as coronavirus is newly discovered coronavirus. This virus is contagious in nature and people affected with the coronavirus are a transferrable medium to transmit it to other people through respiratory droplets.
World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the coronavirus disease a pandemic on 11 March 2020 when there were around 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people had died due to this disease. As of today (after one month), the total tested positive cases across the globe are more than 1,500,000 (1.5 million+) in 212 countries and territories, and more than 95,000 people have lost their lives.
What started from a seafood market in Wuhan city in Hubei Province of China in mid-December 2019 is now a global crisis. The USA now has more than 450,000 tested positive coronavirus cases and European countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and France are worst hit by this virus. Italy alone has more than 18,000 cases of fatalities (143,000+ tested positive cases), which is highest for any country, till date.
So the question arises, what these countries have failed to do to contain the virus whereas there are some countries that contained the virus outbreak and flattened the curve before was too late.
South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are the ones who got this right in earlier stages of the pandemic, with South Korea leading the race across the globe to contain the coronavirus on a large scale.
What South Korea Has Done Correctly So Far
South Korea, learning from its past experiences from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2015 which took 38 lives, acted fast and got themselves ready to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. It included a discussion with the medical industry personnel, manufacturing testing kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), getting the hospitals ready, large scale public awareness through “social distancing” campaign, and shutting down some public places such as schools, events with large gatherings, and encouraging offices to work from home, etc.
Once the cases started coming, South Korea shot up its per day testing capacity and tested every possible suspicious case.
It is testing almost 1 out of 110 (Total South Korea Population (51,259,433)/Total Tests till date (477,304)) person, i.e., 9,812 tests per million population with the developed capacity to test 20,000 people per day.
Finding innovative ways of testing is also one of the factors which helped South Korea to achieve the testing at high scales. These include construction of “drive-through testing center” (quick and easy to take), automatic testing (reduced result-time significantly; the samples are kept into a diagnostic machine and the solution is mixed with the help of the machine, which can be done for a number of tests at once), and walk-through centers at clinics and hospitals.
Widespread testing is one of the crucial keys to fighting this virus, and South Korea has shown its political will to adopt this method and has been able to manage the situation relatively comfortably so far, compared to other nations. This decision for mass testing has not only made South Korea capable of testing every suspicious individual in the country but also helped the manufacturers to scale up their production and export to other countries in this time of crisis. Currently, South Korean companies are producing enough testing kits to test 135,000 people per day.
Effective tracing is another area that is highly critical to identify the possible spread or suspected cases. South Korea has developed a robust contact tracing system which helped them mark and identify networks of possible transmission/suspected cases and the areas. It includes emergency alerts through messages to all the citizens whenever new positive cases are discovered in the district. The alert shares a link that directs to the district website and shares the locations and places visited by the infected person with a time stamp. It helps other people, who might have come in contact with that person or visited the same place at that time, take the necessary precautions. This has helped people immensely to drive for self-testing if the need arises and also alerted authorities to disinfect the places and regions on time. Although this system is helping the government, it is also disrupting privacy and creating unseen consequences. It can also be seen as a trade-off between the privacy of a person and the collective effort to tackle the virus outbreak which could lead to more serious situations if not contained on time.
As of today, there is no treatment or specific medicine and vaccine available to prevent the COVID-19 disease. However, people with severe symptom require supportive care to help them breath and relieve the symptoms. This crisis tests the preparedness of the government and the diagnostic capacity of the nation at scale. Learning from its previous experiences of MERS, South Korea has prepared itself for an outbreak like this and is equipped with almost all the necessary equipment such as ventilators, oxygen concentrators, clinical beds, personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors, medical staff and people at the frontline who are working in essential services. It has also observed that proper isolation and quarantine facilities are also important for cases with mild symptoms and to further stop the spread of the virus. Early detection of the cases enables early treatment, and is now becoming a determining factor for the low fatality rate of the country, which is also reflected by the data that South Korea has only 2% fatalities as compared to 6% of the world.
One person will not be able to tackle this crisis, and hence teamwork becomes essential to fight and get control over the pandemic. In these times, citizens’ support becomes critical to enforce the guidelines of the government. Trust in the public institutions, civic services, NGOs and community at large become crucial while handling and working to overcome the national crisis. An effective state is the one that enforces regulations and also serves its citizens. This indicates the bond of trust between the government and the hoi polloi. Social trust is higher in South Korea as compared to many other countries, which resulted in the successful pursuance of the guideline and appeal made by the government and also raised public awareness.
South Korean authorities have requested people to stay indoors, maintain social distancing, avoid unnecessary travel, do work from home and minimize meetings, cancel events which are expected to have large gatherings such as concerts, games, parties, etc. The sports games and pop-concerts have been cancelled. The people of South Korea responded positively to the appeal and it resulted in quiet streets and empty public places, even in Seoul, the busiest city of the country. People of South Korea reacted responsibly and didn’t do panic buying, and also increased social awareness through public participation (virtually).
Good communication and coordination between the various regional and central government bodies and institutions, and detailed health system plan led to the smooth execution of the health services on the ground.
A comprehensive tracking system is required to monitor those who tested positive for COVID-19. Tracking and monitoring of the confirmed and suspected cases becomes pivotal for identifying the transmission area, the network of people who either have received or transmitted the virus from/to another person. It is also important to ensure compliance among those home quarantine for surveillance.
South Korea is successfully tracking and monitoring those who tested positive because of the application of three important technological advancements. First, South Korea has the highest percentage of cashless transactions (credit cards, debit cards, etc.) among all the countries in the world. Second, the number of registered cellphones (cellphone ownership rates) in South Korea is one of the world’s highest; it exceeds the number of people in the country. Third, South Korean cities have millions of CCTV cameras that capture almost every movement of people outside their homes. These three technologies help in identifying the exact location/movement of the infected person over the preceding 14 days and track down the places where they visited, so that their whereabouts could be shared with the people residing in those areas to avoid visiting the infected spaces and take precautionary actions.
As the risk of resurgence remains, the model of public participation, open information, and widespread mass testing with six critical key measures—Timely/Early Action, Testing, Tracing, Treatment, Team Work, and Tracking and Monitoring seem fairly promising to contain and control the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, and this could also be the lesson to the rest of the world to be prepared for the next big undesirable outbreak.
A version of this article was first published here.