A new research article identifies the factors that enabled South Korea to handle the COVID-19 pandemic particularly well.

A photo of people in South Korea in line to illustrate contract tracing and accompanying the article COVID-19: What can we learn from South Korea's response?Share on Pinterest
Contract tracing has been key to South Korea’s approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

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The research, which appears in The American Review of Public Administration, may be valuable as countries reflect on the relative merits of their own responses to the pandemic thus far.

The novel coronavirus’s rapid spread across the world meant that governments needed to make quick decisions about how to respond. Many governments had little firsthand information to guide their decision-making.

While many countries adopted certain broad trends — for example, widespread physical distancing — many other factors varied considerably from country to country. As a result, some responses to the pandemic were successful and others less so.

In the early phases of the spread of the virus, South Korea had the highest number of cases of SARS-CoV-2 outside of China. Despite this, experts credit the country with a particularly successful response to the pandemic.

In a recent research article, Jongeun You, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver, analyzed information on South Korea’s response to the pandemic — including both English language and Korean documents. He concludes that several factors help explain South Korea’s relative success in its response to the pandemic.

These factors include having a well-prepared plan to respond to infectious diseases, enlisting the private sector in facilitating responses to the virus, putting a thorough contact tracing system in place, and having an adaptable healthcare system. In addition, the communication from the government was clear.

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The Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare (KMHW) maintain an infectious disease plan that they update every 5 years. This plan not only details how the country should respond to an infectious disease outbreak — prioritizing the principles of openness, transparency, and democracy — but also ensures that the country has the resources and structures in place to respond to an outbreak at any time.

Outbreaks of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 and 2018 also helped the KMHW identify areas where the plan needed strengthening. As a result, they made the responsibilities of governmental units clearer and improved the operating procedures in response to an infectious disease outbreak.

The country was able to rapidly identify the areas that the virus affected the most and pour resources into these areas to help reduce its spread.

This was only possible because of the infectious disease plan, which helped coordinate the response and ensured that resources were set aside and so were quickly available.

Testing was key to quickly identifying people who had contracted the virus and ensuring that they quarantined. It also allowed those who did not have the infection to carry on working.

The fact that the country had the capacity for testing from an early stage in the pandemic was due, in part, to a collaboration between different private sector organizations.

The KMHW rapidly developed an effective testing procedure, which the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety prioritized for sign-off by putting it through fast review.

Officials then passed this testing technology to four diagnostic companies who rapidly manufactured kits and distributed them to national and local governments.

South Korea put significant resources into contact tracing, which informed individuals if they had come into contact with anyone who had contracted SARS-CoV-2. This process helped reduce the spread of the virus.

As well as maintaining extensive units of people on the ground, the country also made use of information technologies to help identify people who may have come into contact with someone who had contracted the virus.

The government also publicized the movements of people who had contracted the virus so that anyone could check to see where it may have spread.

As You notes in his article, the mobilization of a large amount of data helped make this tracing process as accurate as possible. The data included “interviews with a patient, patient’s medical records, credit card transactions, global positioning system (GPS) data from cellular phones and cars, travel histories to highly coronavirus-affected countries, and security camera footage.”

To help prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, people with only mild symptoms of COVID-19 received treatment in local government community centers. They only transferred to a hospital if their symptoms got worse.

People with severe COVID-19 went straight to a hospital for critical care support.

In addition to this triaging, the KMHW received a supplementary budget worth $3.2 billion. This funding allowed them to secure resources and staff, which helped the country deal with the additional pressures that the pandemic brought about.

Following the 2015 MERS outbreak, in 2017, South Korea instigated proposals from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The proposals emphasized five principles for communicating decisions in response to a pandemic: be right, be first, build trust, express empathy, and promote action.

Government officials held press conferences twice a day, giving journalists the chance to ask questions. Officials also maintained various phone lines, websites, and social media channels to provide the public with up-to-date information and communicate the latest guidance.

While it is possible to identify the factors that allowed South Korea to respond successfully to the pandemic, it is more difficult to determine whether these factors would be effective in other contexts.

For example, South Korea’s contact tracing required extensive use of information technologies, and the government was legally allowed to access significant amounts of personal data. This required the people of South Korea to trust their government, which is not the case for many countries across the world.

As You explains, some media outlets outside of South Korea “cautioned that personal information provided by the South Korean government disrupted [some people with COVID-19’s] private lives and invoked social stigma.”

Following recommendations from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, the government of South Korea amended patients’ information disclosure guidelines.

Nonetheless, being aware of what did and did not work in South Korea may be helpful for countries in responding to future crises or possible further waves of the current outbreak, even if doing so requires taking into account local differences.

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