Korean authorities prevent the spread of COVID-19
What the United States can learn from how South Korea handled the pandemic
On Dec. 31, China’s government stated that it was dealing with multiple cases of an unknown virus. The first death caused by the virus was reported on Jan. 11, and soon after, other countries in Asia also reported their first cases. Countries near China, such as South Korea, experienced an increase of COVID-19 patients as infected people crossed borders.
President Donald Trump responded to this outbreak by restricting travel to China and declaring a public health emergency on Feb. 3. However, by then, the United States’ first COVID-19 case had already been reported in Washington.
According to the Washington Post, South Korea experienced more than 5,000 COVID-19 cases in late February, when there was a massive outbreak in a fringe Christian group. However, South Korean authorities managed to bring the number down to a few hundred cases by March. Currently, South Korea is averaging approximately 50 daily cases.
Shinjung Kim, a literature teacher working at Duksan High School in South Korea, believes that South Korea managed to avoid the worst effects of COVID-19 due to the collaboration between the government and its citizens.
“The Korean government responded quickly to the COVID-19 outbreak,” Shinjung said. “Although there were problems of privacy at first, the government was able to track down the routes that infected patients took before being tested. The government also contacted people that interacted with infected patients and put them under quarantine.”
On the other hand, the United States is receiving criticism on how its government is handling the current pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Out of 13 countries surveyed, a median of 85% replied that they thought the United States failed to control the outbreaks effectively. Sophomore Jennifer Kim says that there is a significant difference between the current COVID-19 situation in the United States and that of her home country.
“A lot of my friends in South Korea are going to school right now, even though there’s the Coronavirus,” Kim said. “But I’m here in the United States, quarantined. I feel like South Korea is better than us in controlling the virus.”
According to The Atlantic, the differing feedback that the two countries are receiving can be traced back to January, when both countries experienced their first confirmed COVID-19 case. South Korean officials succeeded in receiving approval for their first COVID-19 test kit within a week after their first confirmed case. The United States began testing around late February. By then, community spread had started in both countries, but South Korea was testing nearly 91,000 more people than the United States.
“The Korean government made testing free and installed a lot of drive-thru testing sites,” Shinjung said. “This encouraged people to be tested, which helped the government identify more infected people. In school, students would be tested for fever two times every day. While these might seem overkill, it definitely helped in reducing community spread.”
Another difference was how citizens of the two countries responded to wearing masks. A survey done by Statista showed that 70% of South Koreans decided to wear a mask after the outbreak started, while another 19% were already wearing masks before the pandemic. On the other hand, a New York Times survey conducted in July shows that 49% of United States citizens chose not to wear a mask. Sophomore Sarah Lee, who had lived in South Korea for 12 years, believes that the two countries perceive the idea of wearing masks differently.
“Koreans are very good at wearing masks and keeping socially distanced,” Lee said. “I think the difference is that many people in the United States are not wearing masks, and that’s why the coronavirus keeps spreading. My friends in South Korea are actually worried for me, because now, the United States has more coronavirus cases than Korea.”
According to Kim, South Korea also experienced difficulties in keeping its economy stable. Kim says that while South Korea invested significantly into the medical field, the decision brought controversy in terms of efficient use of the country’s budget.
“It wasn’t that South Korea was perfect in handling the coronavirus,” Shinjung said. “Because all testing and hospital bills are free, foreigners are exploiting this by coming into South Korea if they think they have the coronavirus. The economy is also becoming worse as the pandemic continues.”
Shinjung says that there are points that the United States can still learn from other countries. She believes that while the United States is currently experiencing hardships, Americans will be able to prevent future outbreaks if they decide to look at the experiences of other countries as well as their own history with pandemic diseases.
“South Korea was actually preparing for an outbreak starting from 2015, when we experienced MERS,” Shinjung said. “The Korean government didn’t respond well back then, but they used the experience from MERS to fight the Coronavirus. If the United States learns from this experience, this could be the start of their successful fights with future pandemics.”