The Corner


What South Korea Got Right

Employees from a disinfection service company sanitize a subway car depot amid coronavirus fears in Seoul, South Korea, March 11, 2020. (Heo Ran/Reuters)

South Korea is the country that appears to have handled this crisis best. One thing it has managed to do is to focus social controls on sick people (or potentially sick people) and their contacts more than the blunderbuss closings and lockdowns that we are resorting to. It’d be much better if we were able to do shift in this more precise direction, too.

Pieces at the Wall Street Journal, Science, and Reuters tell the story.

The South Korea success started with being early out of the gate with testing:

In late January, South Korean health officials summoned representatives from more than 20 medical companies from their lunar New Year celebrations to a conference room tucked inside Seoul’s busy train station.

One of the country’s top infectious disease officials delivered an urgent message: South Korea needed an effective test immediately to detect the novel coronavirus, then running rampant in China. He promised the companies swift regulatory approval.

Though there were only four known cases in South Korea at that point, “we were very nervous. We believed that it could develop into a pandemic,” one attendee, Lee Sang-won, an infectious diseases expert at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters.

“We acted like an army,” he said.

And there were results:

The government approved its first test kit on Feb. 4, made by Seoul-based Kogene Biotech Co., when the country had reported just 16 cases. Distribution of test kits started three days later, said Baek Myo-ah, a Kogene executive director. Three other suppliers also soon won fast-track rights to start production after a 10-day review. That prepared South Korea for the worst when in the span of two weeks the case count exploded from 31 on Feb. 18 to nearly 5,000.

The experience that South Korea had with a MERS outbreak several years ago led to it arming itself with quite intrusive powers:

Legislation enacted since then gave the government authority to collect mobile phone, credit card, and other data from those who test positive to reconstruct their recent whereabouts. That information, stripped of personal identifiers, is shared on social media apps that allow others to determine whether they may have crossed paths with an infected person.


Seoul’s government has made citizen vigilance a pillar of its response. Health officials give two daily briefings. Citizens get text alerts when nearby infections emerge—even potential ones still under investigation.

And someone will let you know if it’s determined you need a test:

Returning home after a workday last week, Kang Min-kyung stared at a jarring notice taped to her front door: “We’d like you to get tested for coronavirus.”

A fellow tenant of her downtown Seoul apartment building had tested positive earlier in the day. Her city district’s “Disaster and Safety Headquarters” recommended she get examined within 48 hours and provided the address for a nearby medical facility. Ms. Kang went that night. The free test took 10 minutes.

By the following afternoon, a text message notified her she was fine. “I felt relieved,” said Ms. Kang, a 30-year-old office worker. “I could move on with my life.”

Contacts of sick people self-quarantine — or else:

High-risk patients with underlying illnesses get priority for hospitalization, says Chun Byung-Chul, an epidemiologist at Korea University. Those with moderate symptoms are sent to repurposed corporate training facilities and spaces provided by public institutions, where they get basic medical support and observation. Those who recover and test negative twice are released. Close contacts and those with minimal symptoms whose family members are free of chronic diseases and who can measure their own temperatures are ordered to self-quarantine for 2 weeks. A local monitoring team calls twice daily to make sure the quarantined stay put and to ask about symptoms. Quarantine violators face up to 3 million won ($2500) fines. If a recent bill becomes law, the fine will go up to 10 million won and as much as a year in jail.

If this effort focuses on the sick and people they interact with, it’s not as though everyone else has been going about life as normal:

Still, the numbers of new cases have dropped the past 2 weeks, aided by voluntary social distancing, both in the Daegu-Gyeongbuk region and nationwide. The government advised people to wear masks, wash their hands, avoid crowds and meetings, work remotely, and to join online religious services instead of going to churches.

Obviously, there is a cost of liberty and privacy involved in the South Korea approach, but more than a state ordering its population not to go outside?


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