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[Robert J. Fouser] Learning from Korea’s response to COVID-19

The first week of May in South Korea saw the nation come to life as fears of COVID-19 subsided. People took advantage of a series of holidays to go out and enjoy the spring weather.

On May 6th, the government’s new guidelines called “everyday distancing” went into effect. The guidelines focus on allowing normal activities with continued social distancing, hand washing, and wearing of face masks.

South Korea is not yet free of the pandemic, but it is getting close. Much of Europe, the US, and Japan, meanwhile, have seen a decline in cases but are struggling with how to return to normal life safely. In announcing France’s plans to reopen the economy, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe described the dilemma clearly: “It is a fine line that must be followed. A little too much carelessness, and the epidemic restarts. A little too much caution, and the entire country sinks.”

As governments struggled to contain the spread of COVID-19, South Korea was lauded for its early efforts at testing and contact tracing that were critical to keeping the spread at bay. In the US, a series of delays in implementing widespread testing put the South Korean example at the center of debates. Now that many nations are moving toward reopening, discussions of South Korea’s use of technology in contact tracing have increased.

But testing and contact tracing are only part of the South Korean story. Neither would have been possible without leadership and flexibility. When people think of leadership, the national leader who is always in the news comes to mind first, but leadership happens at various levels throughout the government and organizations. When a crisis hits, they often learn about it first and must make critical decisions to manage the crisis.

Much of South Korea’s success with mass COVID-19 testing comes from a meeting on Jan. 27 between health officials and representatives of medical companies. Though South Korea had only four cases at the time, health officials were certain that the number would increase rapidly and wanted to have tests capability ready in case. A week later, the first test was approved, and another followed soon after. The sudden spike in cases in Daegu at the end of February caught the nation by surprise, but the new testing capability was critical to testing and isolating people with the disease.

Getting tests into production also required flexibility. Health officials allowed companies to rush tests into use with the understanding that inaccuracies would be corrected along the way. In the early stages, test results were cross-checked with other tests, allowing for more accurate results.

Flexibility also helped health officials develop contact tracing. Instead of focusing on developing a new information gathering system, the government used existing data sources such as cellphone tracking, credit card transactions, and security camera footage to trace persons who might have come into contact with someone who has tested positive. A health law passed after criticism of South Korea’s response to MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2015 allowed the government to use such data for disease control.

For strict public health measures to work, citizens must trust health authorities and cooperate in implementing behavior changes. South Koreans do not trust government authorities blindly, but they understood the seriousness of the pandemic and were flexible by adapting to the sudden changes required.

Leadership and flexibility combined at the national level to reaffirm a commitment to openness in the face of the need for closing and isolation. Unlike most other affected nations, South Korea never experienced a strict lowdown. Schools were closed and gatherings of people were prohibited, but shops, cafes, and restaurants remained open. Workplaces remained open and travel continued. At the peak of the breakout, South Korea did not close its borders, though it has now reciprocally banned entry from nations that have banned South Korean citizens.

Leadership and flexibility have also worked together to drive the speed of South Korea’s response. Bureaucracies do not move easily without a push and leadership has given that push. In an emergency, a quick response comes from available resources, not ideal ones, so flexibility is required.

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over; worries about a second wave abound. Prime Minister Philippe’s fine line is not easy to draw, and no nation will do it perfectly. To deal with the surprises and setbacks, nations should continue to look at how leadership and flexibility drove South Korea’s successful response to the first wave. 

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.