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April 08, 2020

Korea: A paragon of dealing with coronavirus

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Coronavirus is terrorizing the world. The situation is becoming very severe, especially in European countries and the US. Amid the global exacerbation, South Korea is receiving considerable attention. When a mass infection occurred a month ago, there were concerns about the outbreak getting out of control. But the spread has dramatically slowed, and the outbreak is now relatively well under control. Considering that Korea has one of the world’s highest population densities, a favorable condition for the virus to spread, the experience of Korea can be of useful help to other suffering countries.

As an economist who has studied the significance of disease control in history, the key to Korea’s control over the pandemic is the active practice of personal protection and hygiene. From the beginning of the virus outbreak in January, the Korean government and society immediately initiated a campaign to wear masks and wash hands to prevent the infection. This is based on a firm belief, learned from experience of the outbreaks of H1N1 in 2009 and MERS in 2015, that those behaviors had been among the most effective ways to prevent infection. You can see many people on the subway and streets, but you can hardly find anyone without a mask on. In addition, a hand sanitizer is the first thing you see at the entrance to most stores and public spaces.

Initially there were problems of panic-buying masks. Suppliers deliberately restricted the distribution of masks to enrich themselves. The market failed. In response, the government designated all domestically produced masks as public goods, restricting all citizens to purchasing only two masks a week through pharmacies and controlling the domestic distribution and exports. With the help of IT, citizens can easily access online map services displaying real-time stock of masks at nearby pharmacies.

Another important factor is information disclosure. After experiencing the threat of the MERS outbreak in 2015, the government enacted a law to disclose to the public all the routes over the past two weeks traveled by persons infected with major infectious diseases. If a confirmed case occurs in a town, the government will immediately inform its residents of the occurrence by cell phone and post the victim’s detailed travel routes on its website. At the same time, the government fumigates all the places on the route, and inspects and quarantines anyone who has been in contact with the infected individual. The information disclosure has the effect of raising people’s alertness to follow preventive guidelines. Under the burden and threat of violations of privacy, those who might become infected are induced to follow the preventive campaigns such as social distancing. 

It has also been highlighted that Korea has a significantly lower fatality rate than most other wealthy countries (as of April 3 “only” 3.4/million inhabitants). This happy outcome seems to result from the efficiency of the treatment. Considering the limited number of available hospital beds, the government has provided intensive hospital care for patients with a high mortality risk, while providing help at general care centers for less severely affected patients. 

Despite these successes, regrettably it is not yet time to relax vigilance. Korea is not free from the coronavirus. About 100 new confirmed cases still occur every day. The government’s current strategy is to promote even stronger campaigns for personal protection, hygiene, and social distancing than before. 

© Sok Chul Hong

Sok Chul Hong is Professor of Economics at Seoul National University, Korea

Read more on the coronavirus crisis:
"Coronavirus and the labor market," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Fighting a coronavirus recession," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Pandemics and the labor market—Then and now," by Karen Clay
"Pricing the lives saved by coronavirus policies," by W. Kip Viscusi
"Health effects of the coronavirus recession," by Christopher J. Ruhm
"The long-term consequences of missing a term of school," by Simon Burgess and Hans Sievertsen
"Coronavirus, telecommuting, and the labor market," by Nikos Askitas
"Expectations about Covid-19 social-distancing measures in Italy and their impact on compliance," by Guglielmo BrisceseNicola LaceteraMario Macis, and Mirco Tonin
"The coronavirus crisis and the next generation," by Bart Cockx  

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