It seems that there is no shortage of grim news for those in the grip of the Corona virus. In the United States, public health officials are preparing for a surge in cases of infection, to make hospitals overcrowded. A few days ago, American surgeon Jerome Adams warned that there is “a great opportunity to be a new Italy”, a grim analogy given the high death toll in the most affected country in Europe.
But elsewhere, there are strikingly encouraging signs, and apart from China, South Korea was one of the worst affected countries in the early stages of the outbreak of the emerging virus, but the strong response made it one of the examples in the midst of an epidemic, thanks to the rapid implementation of a comprehensive testing system , As well as consistent and transparent Seoul messages to the public, throughout the crisis. Either way, in the first months of the outbreak, the performance of President Donald Trump’s administration was poor.
In South Korea, injuries increased over 10 days, in late February, when a group of a few dozen cases turned out to more than 5,000. But infection rates have slowed since state institutions began operating. Of the more than 8,000 confirmed cases of the virus, only 75 people have died so far, which is a death rate below the average of 3%, recorded worldwide.
Meanwhile, the South Korean Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha, commented: “The examination is essential because it leads to early detection, reduces threats, and quickly treats those who have been infected with the virus.”
Samples taken from more than a quarter of a million South Koreans were tested for the virus, and the Wall Street Journal said: “South Korea now has the ability to test up to 20,000 people a day, in 633 test sites nationwide, including Clinics and medical facilities parked in front of newly infected buildings. Follow-up: “The samples are transported by trucks, and stored at about 4.5 ° C, in tight containers, and carried to 118 laboratories.” The results, consisting of about 1,200 medical professionals, are analyzed.
The United States has so far been able to do a small portion of that, and some states have moved to deploy such facilities, but the implementation mechanism was unbalanced, at a time when the virus probably spread in major American cities. In South Korea, as well as Taiwan, there is another notable success story in the battle against the virus. The recent deadly epidemic experience, including the SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS in 2015, helped build the foundations for an effective government and community response. Strict closings were avoided in order to complicate tracking of potential infection and closely monitored.
“Because South Korea has already experienced these types of outbreaks, it knows what kind of steps to take and how dangerous the situation is,” Legan Yooh, an academic at the University of Korea, told the Financial Times. She added: “If we compare it to the United States, which has not been exposed to these things, at least for a long time, then its response was completely different.”
South Korean authorities have made sure that infection tests are essentially free for everyone, and that the country’s health care system does not deny low-income people access to preventive treatment, often unlike in the United States. Then there is the issue of leadership. Trump considered the crisis a Chinese threat that could be dealt with easily on the US border.
The US president has bemoaned his political opponents to inflate a slight threat, and he has repeatedly exchanged inaccurate information and advice with Americans about the extent of the virus and the government’s ability to deal with it. But at a press conference a few days ago, Trump indicated that the outbreak could continue until late summer, which seemed as if the president had finally grasped the reality of the situation. In contrast, the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, oversaw the process, and he was following health officials as they contacted the public twice daily about the latest developments on the outbreak.
“Moon, like Trump, has strong ideological beliefs and faces upcoming elections,” wrote Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at the Busan National University. “But Moon showed a much greater desire to take the matter seriously, to allow experts to manage the response, and nothing resembles Trump’s hesitation, over the past month, or his strange public statements that this will soon disappear or be under control,” he said. He added, “We have also seen widespread conspiracy theories in pro-Trump media.”
“No nation’s response has been fully effective, but the high degree of transparency and efficiency of South Korean health officials provides useful lessons about containment efforts in other countries, and the nature of this epidemic to the international scientific community,” said Thomas Bayern, president of the Korean Society in New York.
This type of openness and transparency builds public confidence, according to Seoul’s Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae Ho, explaining: “This leads to a high level of civic awareness and spontaneous cooperation, which strengthens our efforts to overcome this health emergency.” In a number of Western democracies, public confidence and civic awareness are at a much lower level.
In contrast to what Trump did, South Korean President Moon Jae-in supervised the testing of the suspected HIV infection, and he was following health officials as they communicated with the public.
No country’s response has been fully effective, but the highly transparent and efficient South Korean health officials provide useful lessons on containment efforts.