South Korea's success against the coronavirus could help other countries

The lessons from South Korea are relatively straightforward and focus on swift action, widespread testing and contact tracing and critical support from citizens.

Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church where a woman known as "Patient 31" attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020. (photo credit: YONHAP VIA REUTERS)
Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church where a woman known as "Patient 31" attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020.
(photo credit: YONHAP VIA REUTERS)
South Korea has become an example of a successful fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak, as it managed to lower the number of new infections while preserving its health care system and economy, leaving some wondering if their success can be replicated elsewhere.
As the number of infections exploded in late February and early March in South Korea, over 900 cases were identified in one day. But less than a week after that day, the number of new cases halved. Four days later, it halved again and continued to decrease.
On Sunday, the country only reported 64 new cases, the fewest in almost a month. South Korea is one of only two countries with large outbreaks, alongside China, to flatten the curve of new infections, but was able to do so with the same restrictions on movement or economic damage.
The lessons from South Korea are relatively straightforward, according to The New York Times, and focus on swift action, widespread testing and contact tracing and critical support from citizens.
Some hard-hit nations neglected to follow South Korea's lead and have begun showing interest in emulating its methods. Both President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of Sweden have both discussed the country's measures with South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, has called on countries to "apply the lessons learned in Korea and elsewhere," according to the Times.
South Korean officials have warned that their successes are tentative and that there's still a risk of resurgence.
One of the things South Korea did exceptionally well was intervene fast. Just a week after the country's first case was diagnosed in January, government officials met with medical companies and urged them to begin immediately developing coronavirus test kits for mass production. The country now produces 100,000 kits per day and is now in talks with 17 foreign governments about exporting them.
Emergency measures were swiftly imposed in Daegu, where the virus spread quickly through a local church.
"South Korea could deal with this without limiting the movement of people because we knew the main source of infection, the church congregation, pretty early on,” said Ki Mo-ran, an epidemiologist advising the government’s coronavirus response, according to the Times. “If we learned about it later than we did, things could have been far worse.”
The coronavirus is thought to have a five-day incubation period, usually followed by a period of mild symptoms, similar to a cold. The pattern creates a lag of a week or two before an outbreak becomes apparent. Kim Gang-lip, South Korea’s vice health minister, stressed that these characteristics of the virus make lockdown and isolation ineffective. “Once it arrives, the old way is not effective in stopping the disease from spreading.”
Another thing the country got right was testing early and widely. South Korea has tested more than any other country, allowing it to isolate and treat many people soon after they were infected, with a per-capita testing rate over 40 times that of the US.
Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, told the BBC that tests were "the key behind our very low fatality rate as well."
Officials opened 600 testing centers designed to screen as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to prevent hospitals and clinics from being overwhelmed.
When someone tests positive, health workers in South Korea retrace the patient's recent movements to find, test and isolate anyone the person may have had contact with, in a process known as contact tracing.
Contact tracing allows health workers to find networks of possible transmission early. South Korea developed tools and practices for contact tracing during the outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus, according to the Times. Officials retrace patients' movements using security camera footage, credit card records and GPS data from their cars and cellphones.
As the coronavirus outbreak grew, officials began relying more on mass messaging, sending emergency alerts to South Koreans' cellphones whenever new cases were discovered in their districts. Websites and apps detail the timelines of infected people's travel - which buses they took, when and where they got on and off and whether they were wearing masks.
Many South Koreans have accepted the loss of privacy as a necessary trade-off. People ordered into self-quarantine have to download another app which alerts officials if a patient leaves isolation.
Gang-lip told the Times that in order to stop the outbreak, citizens needed to be fully informed and cooperate. Polls show majority approval for the government's efforts. Confidence is high, panic is low and hoarding is rare.
Officials credit the nationalized health care system and special rules covering coronavirus-related costs as giving even people with no symptoms greater incentive to get tested.
Experts see three major hurdles in implementing the same measures as South Korea: political will, public will and time.
Many governments don't have the political will to impose burdensome measures before a crisis-level outbreak occurs. When it comes to public will, social trust is a lot higher in South Korea than in Western democracies.
When it comes to time, it may be "too late" for countries already being affected by epidemics to control outbreaks like South Korea has, according to Mo-ran.
Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said on Twitter that the US probably lost it's chance to "have an outcome like South Korea," according to the Times.
"We must do everything to avert the tragic suffering being borne by Italy," wrote Gottlieb.
In comparison to South Korea, Israel has currently imposed restrictions on movement and is planning gradually implementing a lockdown, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan told Kol Yisrael on Monday.
Israel will ultimately be divided into quadrants, and police and the IDF will work together to monitor those areas and ensure that the closure is maintained, Erdan said.
Last week, Netanyahu implemented further restrictions, forbidding people from leaving their homes unless “absolutely necessary.” Visiting parks, beaches, pools, libraries and museums is prohibited, as are all social interactions. Essential services have remained open, including supermarkets, pharmacies and most medical services. While citizens are encouraged to work from home, employees who work in critical industries or small offices are able to do so.
Israel is also increasing testing, by ordering additional testing kits and building drive-through testing centers. The Shin Bet began using digital counter-terrorism tools to track the movements of coronavirus patients and allow the Health Ministry to track and notify those who had been in contact with them. Politicians and citizens responded with outrage to the decision to allow the use of the tracking tools.
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman, Eytan Halon, Yonah Jeremy Bob and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.