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South Korea’s successful COVID-19 response offers lessons for US, panelists say

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South Korea — one of the first countries to flatten the curve of new infections with widespread testing, contact tracing and comprehensive healthcare — has lessons to offer the United States in dealing with COVID-19, according to panelists at a Tuesday event on South Korea’s COVID-19 response. 

Former Seoul National University Public Health Dean Soonman Kwon and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Seoul Bureau Chief Choe Sang-Hun, hosted by the Korea Program at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, attributed South Korea’s low case rate to preparations from past outbreaks and a strong governmental response from President Moon Jae-in.

Although South Korea was one of the first areas to be hit outside of China, panel moderator and Freeman Spogli Institute South Korea Center Fellow Yong Suk Lee highlighted the country’s success in containing the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“The surge was relatively short-lived, and South Korea seems to have flattened the curve,” Lee said, adding that the country has seen a low infection and mortality rate despite a lack of a lockdown. 

Kwon attributed the country’s success in preventing the spread of the virus to a high rate of public trust in government policy. 

“Social capital, or trust in governments, is essential to mobilize public support,” he said.

South Korea’s past experience with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 helped it prepare for COVID-19. The government and healthcare system’s failure and ensuing public criticism motivated the country to bolster its preparation for the latest infectious disease, including strengthening the Korea Center for Disease Control and employing more epidemiological investigators, according to Kwon.

Additionally, Choe added, former President Park Guen-hye’s handling of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, which killed 326 people, taught future presidents a lesson in crisis response.

“Any politician who watched the demise of the Park Geun-hye government realized that their political fate could depend upon how they dealt with a national disaster,” Choe said, explaining that he believed Moon’s government “had this in mind” as it dealt with COVID-19. 

Kwon also credited South Korea’s universal health insurance system and widespread contact testing for patients with COVID-19 as a boon for the country.

“If you are a COVID patient, the financial burden [for you] is basically zero,” Kwon said. 

Today in South Korea, life is returning — thanks to stringent government intervention — to normal, Choe said. 

“Once you realize there is an outbreak, you have to move quickly and efficiently and mobilize resources as quickly as possible,” Choe said.

Contact Anna Milstein at annamil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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