The COVID-19 pandemic had initially shaken South Korea. In the beginning, as we struggled to contain the virus, the number of infections rose quickly, just as other countries later experienced. However, we were able to quickly cope with this seemingly uncontrollable situation. The two main elements of Korea’s success in overcoming this pandemic are a human-centered philosophy (ideology) and a state-of-the-art disease control system.
A human-centered philosophy, where human life and human rights come above all other considerations, became the most important criteria when deciding the direction of epidemic prevention activity. It focuses on the perspective of the person who experiences a problem, their needs, and whether the solution is truly meeting their needs or not.
Korea implemented a state-of-the-art smart disease control system using information and communication technology to implement a quarantine system. COVID-19 diagnostic kits, which promptly and accurately check if a person is infected, were quickly developed and distributed, and the COVID-19 Epidemiological Investigation Support System, an online data platform that tracks the path of confirmed patients, was implemented.
Extensive testing throughout the country was a crucial step in determining the number of infections in the early days of the outbreak as this data was used to analyze for infection hotspots and trace the population that came in contact with all those infected.
A biotech company in Korea, shortly after the first novel coronavirus-related death in China in January, had started developing a COVID-19 diagnostic kit using an artificial intelligence-based big data system, which enabled the firm to quickly develop a test for coronavirus. Within just weeks, they launched their product on a mass production basis, which enabled numerous diagnostics around the country.
In addition to extensive testing to quickly identify people infected with the coronavirus, identification of their contacts was key to minimize the further spread of the disease. In the early days of COVID-19, it took more than a day to determine the movement of people who were confirmed to have the virus using their mobile phone location information, credit card payment history and CCTV data analysis. Fortunately, the Smart Epidemiological Investigation Support System platform was soon developed. The software can automatically analyze vast amounts of data such as traffic and energy, using the “Smart City Development Technology,” reducing the investigation time to less than 10 minutes.
Information gathered from investigations into the movement of people who are confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 is directly shared with local governments, which notify their residents through real-time text messages about the location of confirmed cases. Disclosure of personal information is in accordance with the Infectious Disease Prevention Law, which enables epidemic investigators to use personal information for accurate epidemiological investigations during the crisis. All personal information used will be purged immediately after the outbreak is over.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention manages self-quarantining for people who have been in contact with confirmed patients or who have recently traveled to Korea from overseas. Local governments provide food and hygiene products for those self-quarantining for a minimum of two weeks.
Through a self-quarantining security protection application and GPS, people who have been in contact with suspected patients send their current health status, including whether they have a fever, cough or sore throat, and their location information on a daily basis to prevent further infections.
A mature sense of citizenship
Many self-quarantining people accept that being monitored through an application is necessary to protect public health in a pandemic situation, a sign that a mature sense of citizenship is spreading throughout Korean society.
For the rapid diagnosis and prevention of infection, the world’s first drive-thru and walk-thru examination systems have been operated, while at airports, all overseas arrivals must stay in quarantine for 14 days after a quick checkup. All these methods are to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the region.
In a survey regarding social distancing, conducted April 17-18, 63 percent of respondents were opposed to easing the social distancing policy, even though the number of new confirmed cases per day fell to 10 or less. A mature citizenship prioritizes public safety over individual freedom and convenience.
The systematic conduct of government officials and dedication of medical teams were key to Korea’s early stabilization from the pandemic.
How pandemic will birth whole new era
This pandemic has already transformed many aspects of our lives, including the way we live and work. Many are viewing the current situation optimistically and preparing for the post-coronavirus era. For example, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said, “This is the largest work-from-home experiment ever to be conducted in human history.”
This takes us one more step deeper into the “fourth industrial revolution” where everything will be connected digitally through flexible and cloud-based technology. This pandemic has accelerated this work-culture transformation.
This raises one significant question: What will jobs look like in the post-pandemic era?
I strongly believe that demand suppressed by stay-at-home and social distancing requirements will explode and create new opportunities for all of us.
For example, even in this disastrous situation, Walmart and Amazon are recruiting more people, 150,000 and 170,000, respectively. Coupang, an online shopping and delivery platform in Korea, has more sales compared to last year and is hiring more people. Companies based on AI, the internet of things and big data and health care-related industries are expected to grow rapidly after the pandemic.
South Korea, which shared effective countermeasures against COVID-19 with the world, Bill Gates, who anticipated and prepared for epidemics, and Elon Musk, who is seeking new habitats for mankind on Mars, will become models for many other entrepreneurs and leaders around the globe.
Google is the biggest global information technology company. Samsung Electronics is pioneering a new era of semiconductors. Korea Telecom, a major telecommunication company, is leading 5G technology. Amazon is one of the leading companies in consumption and distribution. All these companies will be directly involved in our lives in the post-corona era.
Though it seems permanent and devastating now, the novel coronavirus will end in the future. By the time that happens, we will be living in the world that is quite different from our world before the pandemic. It is entirely up to us to transition this crisis into an opportunity and create a better and human-centered space for all us in the future.
By Byoung-chul Min - - - Dr. Byoung-chul Min is a distinguished professor at Hanyang University in Korea where he teaches students how to create jobs for the “fourth industrial revolution” and he is the founder of the Sunfull Internet Peace Movement, which counters cyberbullying while protecting human rights on the internet. He dedicates this article to his close friend from Australia, who lost his father, Ralph Ferrett, to COVID-19 and to everyone around the world currently battling this pandemic. -- Ed.
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