Multiple factors behind South Korea’s success with COVID-19

Remarkable curve flattening without draconian measures . . .

South Korea’s success in flattening its coronavirus curve has been highlighted yet again, this time on CBC’s interactive tool comparing Canada’s COVID-19 curve with those of other countries. At the onset of the crisis, South Korea sought to retain elements of social and economic normalcy by enacting aggressive testing, tracing, and treatment, instead of locking down the country. Despite initial setbacks with massive community outbreaks, primarily spread through Christian cults, the country has been able to keep its number of positive cases to around 10,000 confirmed patients. It has experienced only 174 deaths.

Streamlined process for national-scale disasters . . .

Speakers on a webinar today hosted by The Brookings Institution emphasized three key factors behind South Korea’s success: early and mass testing, effective contact tracing, and public trust in government. These factors point to the South Korean government’s capacity to agilely co-ordinate with local governments and the private sector in emergency situations. South Korea has experienced national-scale disasters in recent years – including the MERS outbreak in 2015 and the 2014 Sewol Ferry sinking – and has developed streamlined processes for centralized, whole-of-nation responses with heightened public scrutiny. In the current context, the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Centers for Disease Control have set up a national headquarters to co-ordinate testing, tracing, and treatment with local governments, providing uniform guidelines for all aspects of outbreak mitigation. Further, South Korea’s robust national health-care system – with over 3,000 health clinics around the country – has provided the advanced infrastructure necessary for managing the outbreak.

Is the Korean model applicable to Canada?

South Korea’s capacity to effectively manage national crises, combined with transparent communication, has translated into elevated levels of public trust and social order, with a high percentage of the population following government instructions on social distancing and hoarding. Seoul’s centralized response to COVID-19 contrasts to that of Canada, where health care is under the jurisdiction of provinces. The distribution of responsibilities among federal, provincial, and local governments has resulted in discrepancies on COVID-19 responses across the country. For instance, while B.C. has tested 1 out of every 114 residents as of April 2, Ontario has tested 1 in 230. While all aspects of South Korea’s COVID-19 response have been highlighted as models, it is important to note that these are not products of good response, but of sustained investment in health care and disaster management systems over an extended period.