With a population of about 50 million, South Korea has had about 25,000 Covid-19 infections and, at the end of October, around 400 deaths. The country is a democratic, open society; these figures are reliable and can be compared with those in other democratic regimes such as the United States or France. Moreover, South Korea is an urbanized country, with 80 percent of its population living in large cities; the climate is similar to Europe or North America. How do we explain the spectacular discrepancy between South Korea, with five Covid deaths per 100,000 people, and France or the United States, with 400 deaths per 100,000?
Drawing comparisons of this sort is tricky. The Covid-19 pandemic is a complex association of multiple parameters. It’s tempting to select one among them to prove or disprove an ideological preference. But instead of drawing such dubious comparisons, let us try to identify the specific factors behind South Korea’s success in managing the pandemic.
In a condition of rapid contagion, timing is of the essence: each day counts during a pandemic because the virus spreads exponentially. If you don’t stop the virus from the beginning and instead let it expand for a few weeks or months, you will never catch up, or you will need to impose extreme constraints, which South Korea never had to do. Therefore, the first factor in South Korea’s success was an immediate understanding, starting in January, of the nature of the pandemic. The local authorities understood immediately that they were confronted with a severe coronavirus coming from China, something like the 2015 MERS epidemic. The risk was recognized, and the counterstrategy was ready: test, trace, isolate. This strategy was implemented with no hesitation and without interruption.
Continuity has been central to South Korean success. Less than one month after the virus was identified, through negotiations between the government and private pharmaceutical laboratories, 1 million tests kits were made available and half a million people were tested every day; they still are. Positive cases were immediately isolated at home, in hotels, or hospitals; massive testing allowed tracing through personal contacts with contact tracers and effective smartphone apps. This massive intrusion on personal privacy faced minimal resistance, with nearly all Koreans in agreement on the priority of containing the virus above concerns about empowering the surveillance state. Simultaneously, the government implemented a unified, clear, and strong communication policy, encouraging the population to wear masks, wash their hands, and keep socially distant. Fines for not wearing masks were put in place, but since South Koreans spontaneously wear masks as soon as they catch colds, and children at school are trained to wash their hands frequently, there was little need to police the noncompliant.
Some locations identified as centers of infection, mostly bars and evangelical churches where social distancing was not respected, were temporarily closed. The rest remained open. If South Korea suffered a modest economic decline and some unemployment, its economy has subsequently surged.
The achievement of the South Korean model cannot be understood without emphasizing its cultural basis. The South Korean people may like or dislike their government, but they trust that it makes rational choices. These choices are well explained and well understood because South Koreans believe in scientific progress. And the national strategy is thoroughly applied because South Koreans share a strong sense of collective discipline: shame on you if you do not wear a mask or forget to wash your hands. If you’re ordered to quarantine, the order is not a suggestion, and your family and neighbors will not let you escape for a walk in the park or a trip to the store.
The South Korean model has been replicated in Taiwan, following the same guidelines and principles, leading to similarly positive results in controlling the virus. In China and Vietnam, the strategy looks similar, but the results cannot be verified independently because, in these two authoritarian countries, it has been implemented by force by the police and the military. No such violence takes place in South Korea or Taiwan, whose models are more legitimate and democratic.
In the United States and in Europe, we are far less unified culturally and far more quarrelsome, including when it comes to government scientific advice; consequently, we pay for the politicization of the pandemic with our lives. When a vaccine appears, it will probably represent a triumph of Western scientific excellence, but it’s just as likely that South Korea will inoculate its population before we do. The pandemic reveals something surprising in Western civilization—we increasingly doubt the scientific progress that we invented, while Eastern civilizations now embrace it.
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