After 100 days of fighting COVID-19, South Korea is set to go back to normal life

Graphs from Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Almost three weeks since South Korea held national elections, the conclusions are clear: highest voter turnout ever, a huge win to the president’s party and no significant sign of coronavirus infections.

The election gave a huge win to President Moon Jae-In’s ruling Democratic Party, which captured 180 seats of 300 seats in parliament. The April 15 parliamentary election recorded its highest voter turnout in 28 years, according to the national election commission, and there was no sign of new cases related to the elections. 

“The high turnout in the April elections underlines the South Koreans’ trust in their government’s handling of this crisis, and the results — a landslide for the ruling party — reflect that sentiment,” said Jean Lee, a Director of Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center.

“South Koreans are emerging from this with a sense of pride for how they as a nation are dealing with covid-19, and that sense of pride is reflected in both the high turnout and the results favoring the ruling party.”

A little bit of background of COVID-19 situation in South Korea

According to statistics from Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource center, South Korea had 10,806 confirmed cases and 254 deaths as of May 6.

On February 18, COVID-19 confirmed cases dramatically increased, and this outbreak was linked to a religious group, called Shincheonji religious group, who authorities say played a big role in spreading the coronavirus. 

The religious group, which the government considers a cult, had a large gathering in Daegu city. That’s when the coronavirus outbreaks actually started in South Korea.

About 50% of the South Korean cases have been registered from Shincheonji, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the peak of the outbreak, daily confirmed cases went as high as to 594.

During the national elections, two months after the outbreak, South Korea’s coronavirus curve was already trending downward. On April 30, no COVID-19 cases were reported within the country; only four cases were found at an airport screening.

The government is ending social distancing and announcing a new rule: “everyday life quarantine scheme,” a relaxed version of social distancing. Starting Wednesday – schools, parks, libraries and museums were gradually reopening.

The updated regulations did not mean that things were reverting to life before COVID-19. 

The government still recommended that South Koreans continue to practice social distancing in their everyday lives by staying home if people feel sick, maintaining social distancing in their daily lives, washing their hands frequently and wearing masks if necessary.

In a sign of relaxed rules, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) opened its delayed season on Tuesday, though without fans in the stadium. Along with Taiwan, it was one of the first sports leagues to resume after the worldwide pandemic. The American sports network ESPN announced that it would broadcast Korean games in the United States, where baseball-starved fans have been awaiting the resumption of major league games. 

Tweet from South Korea president Moon Jae-in

After 72 days of COVID-19

Local confirmed case – 0

Confirmed cases related to the general election – 0

This is the power of South Korea and the power of the citizen.

One South Korean analyst said that South Korean success in dealing with the pandemic so far, compared with the United States, was the result of strict quarantining and considerable testing. Lee said the United States is in a far different situation. “It’s a much bigger country and has carried out far fewer tests and almost no tracking or contact tracing. It is questionable whether U.S. voters will feel comfortable going to the polls in November.”

Being testedPopulationTested per capita
United States7,285,178330,706,47645.39
South Korea640,23751,262,19780.06
Data from Our World in Data

It was notable that South Korea and the United States discovered early cases of coronavirus within a day of each other, both based on contacts with travelers from Wuhan, China, said Victor Cha, a senior advisor and Korean Chair at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, at an online event on Tuesday.

However, South Korea emerged as “a role model for how to respond to this pandemic,” Cha said. “It took them about six weeks to flatten the curve to slow the rate of infection. And, it took about three months and two weeks in total for them to get a new infection rate that’s in the single digits.”  

How and why is South Korea so well prepared?  

Lee said South Korea learned from its experience grappling with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 and was well-prepared to handle this coronavirus outbreak as well.

When MERS outbroke, it was a real fear in South Korea.

“People didn’t know which hospitals they could go to. South Korea had the largest number of cases outside of the Middle East,” said Cha. “The most important thing about MERS is that the public was extremely disappointed in the fact that the government was not providing clear, immediate and transparent information about what was happening.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were only two cases of MERS in the United States back in 2014. “So we were not traumatized by that. We didn’t have that sort of event,” he said.

MERS taught South Korea in terms of how to handle and react when virus outbreaks, and it led to changes in legislation that would allow the government to provide more information to the public.

Cha said “that led to legislative changes and led to the sort of smartphone apps that Korea now uses to get 360-degree awareness of positive cases.” Monitoring on the phone allows people to track their own movements and the movements of possibly infected people.

“That’s why you see in Korea today, life is pretty much back to normal,” he said. “People are jamming at the Starbucks and they’re eating out. Things are moving quickly back to normal.”

Two experts expressed the importance of contact tracing

“Testing, tracking and contact tracing were key,” Lee said. South Korea’s careful planning at all levels of government, its coordination with research labs and the private sector, and its strong public healthcare system allowed the country to move quickly and efficiently as early as January — without the harsh lockdowns we’ve seen elsewhere.

Cha also said that  “as we try to reopen our economy in the United States and around the world, contact tracing is extremely important.”

“I think in looking to the future that we’re going to be, this is going to be in a sense of our MERS as it was for Korea and we’re going to be much better prepared in the United States in the future.”

Contact tracing resources, digital tools and guidance are available on the CDC website to trace and monitor contacts of infected people.

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