South Korea witnessed a low number of Coronavirus infections at the beginning of the pandemic, recording only three cases until February 18.
Then, the virus’ spread suddenly skyrocketed, with mainly at its epicenter a secretive sect (Shincheonji Church of Jesus) that didn’t consider social distancing measures.
Later, Korea quickly became the second worst-hit country in the world after China by early March, 40 days after its first confirmed case on its soil (January 20, 2020).
How Did Korea Manage to Flatten the Curve So Efficiently?
After reaching 909 daily new cases in February 2020, Korea succeeded in quickly bringing the three-digit number down to a single-digit case number in just 60 days.
Much of Korea’s response to COVID-19 in terms of governance has been due to the lessons learned while dealing with the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015.
At that time, a slow-footed response from the government had been blamed for the country suffering the largest MERS outbreak outside the Middle East.
Since then, laws have been passed to enable authorities to collect data needed for contact tracing, promote public-private medical partnerships, authorize emergency use of tests kits and treatments, etc.
Accordingly, Korea came with a very swift and bold response way before COVID-19 became a real pandemic, with for example reliable test kits designed, approved, and fully operational within three weeks.
The Core of Korea’s COVID-19 Strategy
Test, trace, and treat formula (3T’s) has been the key to South Korea’s successful fight against coronavirus.
Korea has tested more people than anywhere else in the world especially at the beginning of the pandemic. The government provided massive testing campaigns.
Hundreds of epidemic intelligence officers have been put on the field to meticulously trace and isolate potentially infected persons. To do so, they were empowered to use a wide variety of sources such as credit card transaction data, mobile phone location logs, and surveillance camera footage
Korea is known to be one of the most advanced countries both in the medical and the pharmaceutical sector, which was crucial to treat effectively and keep the death rates very low.
Besides the 3Ts strategy, both the government and citizens shared these four principles; openness, transparency, civic engagement, and innovativeness.
Korea is one of the only countries once severely hit that never went into a full lockdown as borders were always kept open.
The government gained public trust by being extremely transparent on data and decisions, taken regarding the COVID matter.
The government also implemented policies based on clear communication and citizen participation through attentively practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and supporting work from home.
Moreover, the country even safely conducted general elections in April 2020 at a time most of the other major countries were getting locked down. The elections caught attention worldwide as they recorded the highest turnout in 28 years (66%), with the government even managing to find a way to give people in quarantine an equal chance to vote, a victory for democracy.
Korea is a very innovative country and has proved it again during the pandemic. Drive-through and Walk-through testing systems quickly adopted all around the world were first invented in Korea.
Mobile applications listing real-time mask inventories in pharmacies helped end the shortage of COVID-19 masks within days. They are also expected to be used to notify citizens when it is one’s turn to get vaccinated along with the exact location.
The Economy During the Pandemic
Korea has limited COVID-19 damage to 1.1% GDP contraction in 2020 being the less hit economically among advanced countries. It has been recovering faster than any other country this year with a growth projection of 2.5~3.2% in 2021.
Furthermore, the nation’s per capita income (GNI) is anticipated to surpass that of a G7 member state (Italy) for the first time in history, while its economy is also likely to break into the world’s top ten for GDP.
The IMF predicted that Korea last year outperformed Russia and Brazil to become the world’s tenth-largest economy, with GDP of USD 1.58 trillion.
The 3rd Wave of COVID-9
Unlike previous waves, Korea’s third wave is made up of small community clusters, which makes it harder to suppress. Nevertheless, the country was still able to keep the case numbers low.
Korea tackled this third wave by implementing an even more massive test campaign (more than 120,000 daily tests at its peak) that actually helped in finding many of those asymptomatic cases and limiting chains of transmission.
Travel Restriction for Foreigners
As a supporter of maintaining the flow of essential economic exchanges, Korea has never imposed a total restriction on inbound travelers from abroad. Hence, the government was sometimes criticized at home for that, especially before it succeeded in controlling the spread of the virus.
Instead, any person entering the country is tested and subject to a mandatory 14 days quarantine. That step of keeping the country open later proved to have been the right thing to do as it helped the economy keep running.
The National Vaccination Campaign
While Korea secured more than enough vaccines to innoculate its entire population (through deals with foreign pharmaceutical companies), the actual vaccination campaign has only started end of February.
The country plans to get to herd immunity by November 2021 with the goal of inoculating 70 percent of its population by September, starting with staff members and patients under the age of 65 at convalescent hospitals, rehabilitation centers of mental hospitals, and related facilities.
How’s Korea Doing in the Field of Pharmaceutical Development?
Test kits, special cotton-tipped plastic swabs for those tests, and even face masks (KF94) have been broadly praised abroad for their quality since the beginning of the pandemic.
The government also kept supporting its local biotech industry which has been putting a lot of effort in developing globally recognized, Korea-made vaccines and treatments.
In February 2021, Korean firm Celltrion’s CT-P59 has become the country’s first homegrown COVID-19 treatment, while companies such as SK Bioscience signed contracts with global pharmaceutical companies to both produce and develop vaccines at home, the deals most importantly including technology transfers.
In other words, Korea is set to gain more independence as for its national supply and this also brightens the perspective of the country becoming itself a vaccine producing country as today, numerous vaccines and treatments are currently under clinical trials and waiting for approval.
On top of that, a special model of locally produced syringes has paved the way recently for increasing the number of vaccine recipients by one to two per vaccine bottle.
The breakthrough was made possible by the so-called low dead space (LDS) syringes designed to minimize wasted vaccine doses by reducing space between the needle and the plunger. Requests are currently surging from all around the world for those.
How Is Korea Sharing Its Experience with the World?
President Moon Jae-in has stressed the importance of international cooperation and knowledge sharing amidst this global crisis. Moon promised that if the treatments being developed in Korea are successful, they will be supplied to any country that requests it in a spirit of inclusiveness.
In the same spirit, the Korean government has also published guidebooks to its response to the COVID-19 pandemic through innovative technology, at the request of member nations of the Group of 20 leading economies and international organizations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The books include detailed information on the country’s social distancing guidelines, the technology-powered approach of the “3 t’s” -testing, tracing, and treatment as well as the use of data-driven measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.