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How they do it in South Korea: keeping the numbers down with masks, social distancing, and contact tracing


photo by David Mark courtesy of mountains of South Korea

The New Yorker published an article dated April 17 about COVID-19 in South Korea.  These articles should be available without a subscription since they are related to the novel coronavirus.  The contrast between how SARS-COV-2 is treated here and there could not be starker.  We test only people who are either very ill or have been in close contact with someone sick.  Even then, testing is spotty.  There is next to no tracing of the movements of people with positive tests, and no-one wears a mask unless they live in New York City.

In South Korea, they had a bad experience with “Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome” (MERS).  After the scandal, in which it was discovered that the government had not given out critical information and allowed transmissions of the virus, illnesses, and deaths, they passed a law.  Now they test everyone coming into the country, sometimes on multiple occasions.  The tests only take 24 hours to finish, and the results are sent to the patient by text message.  Those who test positive are quarantined or admitted to the hospital.  Their movements are traced and publicized, and everyone who has been in contact with them comes in to be tested.  Public places where they have stopped are thoroughly cleaned; people avoid them anyway, even though they pose no risk after being sanitized.  Every bit of information is shared widely; reports are sent to all the smartphones in the country.  As a result, toilet paper is widely available and there is no hoarding.

Under the terms of South Korea’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act—passed after the 2015 mers outbreak, during which the government’s withholding of critical information contributed to further transmissions and deaths—it is now required to publish information that can include infected people’s travel routes, the public transport they took, and the medical institutions that are treating them.

The South Korean government rations face masks: people are allowed to buy two a week.  They are the surgical type so long familiar from movies, not home-made.  Only high-risk establishments like night-clubs and churches have been closed; even then, closures are voluntary.  Places can stay open if they observe mask-wearing and a two-meter distance between patrons.  Most churches have switched to on-line services anyway.  Restaurants are still open.

Having a universal health care system is a big help for South Korea.  The infection-control law allows for close contact tracing using credit-card information, closed-circuit TV cameras set up in public places, and so on, but it prohibits the use of this information for anything other than infection control.

South Koreans have decided that, during an infectious-disease outbreak, there is a strong, pragmatic case to be made in favor of what might be called virtuous surveillance—a radically transparent version of people-tracking that is subject to public scrutiny and paired with stringent legal safeguards against abuse. Despite its imperfections, South Korea’s policy is striking for the fact that it brings the mechanisms and outcomes of surveillance into the public forum. In doing so, it appeals to a deeper sense of civic trust—the belief that, in a crisis, the citizenry can be relied upon to play its part.

South Korea has some big advantages over the United States.  One is universal health “insurance”; another is the sense of community spirit that allows democratic functioning in a time of emergency.

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