Covid-19 has impacted corners of our world, but not all countries have faced it the same way. The Republic of Korea (ROK) – with its unique economic situation and history – took strong steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus and control the pandemic in its country.
South Korea has ongoing economic ties with China which made them hesitate to close the border with their mainland business partner, but at the same time the ROK did an exemplary job of controlling the spread of the virus by using their hard-won experience of previously having encountered – and beaten – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015.
“It’s Like Trying to Catch Mosquitoes and at the Same Time Leaving the Windows Open”
“It’s like trying to catch mosquitoes and at the same time leaving the windows open,” commented a journalist in a Feb. 23 press conference. The journalist was questioning the current government policy and didn’t believe it was necessary to close the borders with China to protect the people from COVID-19. “But it’s winter; there are no mosquitoes now!” answered Park Neung-Hoo, the minister of health and welfare in South Korea, disappointing the journalist who was hoping for a more convincing answer.
“The virus is spreading inside the country; it’s not coming from outside!” added the minister, trying make a sense of his talks, but just making it worse. Eventually, Korean social media responses to him by turning his name to “Park Moo-Neung” meaning “useless Park” in Korean.
South Korea’s Border With China
As officials wanted; Korean borders to China stayed open and are still open which
many believe made the situation worst in the country. As the ROK economy relies on exports to China, some believe there are political and economic reasons for the decision that trumped public health.
“There must be something between our president and the Chinese government. They just care about the economy, but this policy doesn’t make anyone any happier,” said Mina, a 28-year-old college student in political science, now living alone in quarantine. Mina said she regrets her vote for President Moon Jae-in a few years ago. “I understand this is a new epidemic and they couldn’t have made a right decision on time, but I don’t understand why they still keep the borders open and even give so many facilities for non-Koreans, which made so many Europeans come here and make it out of control again,” she added. Mina said she is angry with her government who also spends lots of money from their taxes on free check-ups for foreigners who are still allowed to come to the country.
Seoul City Government Accuses Church of Murder
Even though South Korea became one of the most infected countries in the world by the new virus, the ROK government could later get numerous compliments on its works in controlling the situation. They successfully spotted coronavirus patients and at-risk individuals and quarantined them. Especially at the beginning all 30 infected South Koreans and suspected cases were under control. However, an undetected 61-year-old woman known as patient 31 became famous after she brought the disease back and spread it rapidly. Social media and news agencies then turned the blame from the government to patient 31.
Patient 31 is a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus (Shincheonji) and is responsible for delivering the virus to over 1,000 people that she met during mass. Now, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has filed a formal complaint against the congregation, accusing it of murder.
South Korea’s 2015 Fight Against MERS
In 2015 South Korea was badly hit by MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and became the most most MERS-infected nation outside of the Middle East. At that time South Korea developed a system to rapidly expand testing capabilities during future disease outbreaks. This has been credited as a major reason for South Korea’s widespread testing and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country made the most expansive and well-organized testing program in the world on facing the new coronavirus, combined with extensive efforts to isolate infected people and trace and quarantine their contacts.
However, preparing for testing facilities wasn’t the only thing the ROK learned from 2015. During MERS, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare initially withheld details from the public to avoid anxiety. This policy lacked public acceptance and was heavily criticized as preventing the Ministry from properly notifying hospitals and municipal governments. Experiences from that incident showed that keeping the public in the dark actually increased fear. This time the government didn’t hesitate to share all information with the public and decided to be fully transparent. Even an app was designed and published that shared all details of infected people; the system would also ring an alarm for people if they got close to a place that an infected person had visited. This system made sure that people can be doubly careful and possibly choose alternative paths. Also, important updates were sent directly to the phones of residents in all affected regions and neighborhoods.
Giving Credit to South Korea’s Government
The South Korean government also decided to help China at the start of the outbreak by sending over 2 million masks to China, which soon became in serious need of them. They soon made another positive step in setting a quota of two masks per week for all residents of South Korea. Tracked according to the last number of their identity cards, citizens could get their two masks once a week from their nearest pharmacy.
Unlike flights which it kept open, Korea closed public events and schools immediately as coronavirus hit and educated citizens with different means. All religious worship places were also required to close or hold services with extra conditions and safety precautions. The conditions do not include Shincheonji which has been sealed due to its vastly higher number of infections. South Korea’s Buddhist temples also closed for the first time in the last sixteen centuries.
At this point the number of recovered people in South Korea has exceeded the number of newly infected people per day. This has created a feeling that the situation is getting back under control. However, anyone can be the next patient number 31 and that makes everything hard to predict – even in well-prepared South Korea.