South Korea

How South Korea is Beating COVID

From mask vending machines to a general culture of responsibility

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in the US, it’s easy to forget the virus arrived in South Korea around the same time as the US. The countries took vastly different approaches—with vastly different outcomes. As the US death toll approaches 135,000, fewer than 300 Koreans have died. In our latest collectible print guide, we explore just how South Korea has fought the COVID-19.

In her essay from our South Korea print guide, E. Tammy Kim’s explores her complicated emotions as a Korean American, watching as the US flounders while South Korea succeeds. Here we examine five key reasons why there’s been such different outcomes in the two countries:

1. Masks everywhere

Masks remain a ubiquitous requirement in much of South Korea. Initially, when masks were scarce, the government implemented a “Mask 5-Day Policy” in which individuals could only purchase masks at pharmacies on certain days depending on birth year. Now, as Korea prepares for an expected surge of new infections when the weather cools in the fall, passengers on the subway in Seoul are able to take advantage of mask vending machines that were installed at stations (and in parks across the city) in May. From 13th of that month, passengers not wearing masks were denied access to trains during rush hour.

2. Contact Tracing

When somebody in the neighborhood is diagnosed with COVID-19, people in the vicinity receive detailed text message alerts, naming the shops, bars or businesses they’ve visited and what route they took to get there. This kind of detailed tracking (known as The Epidemic Investigation Support System) was enabled by legislation passed in the wake of the 2015 MERS outbreak. Despite privacy concerns, researchers said there’s been an 18% drop in weekend commuting for those under 60, and a 44% drop for those 60 and older, to downtown Seoul. It’s also prevented the kind of dent to the economy the U.S. has seen. 

3. Testing

Hundreds of walk-in and drive-through testing booths all over the country have been one of the pillars of South Korea’s successful coronavirus strategy. Whereas the U.S. relied on testing kits developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Korea looked to the private sector, urging its biotech companies to help develop kits. A month after the coronavirus hit, it was performing over 10,000 free tests daily.

4. Putting the kibosh on public gatherings

As coronavirus cases surged in South Korea in February, the authorities there closed churches as part of an effort to rein in public gatherings. In Seoul, a number of worshippers were turned away at the door of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, and instead the church broadcast a sermon for its 560,000 followers on YouTube. Today, churches have reopened, but congregations are required to maintain distance between each other and wear masks.

5. A culture of responsibility
Our South Korea guide features numerous interviews with average people about their experiences  during COVID-19, and many of them identified the important cultural emphasis on responsibility for others. As Mandy Sunyung Kim, one of the interviewees, puts it “the prevailing mood in Korea is that ‘I’d rather be the one to suffer the virus than be the person who unknowingly spread it to the people around me,’ so social distancing has quickly become a habit and etiquette.”



Related Content