Lessons from South Korea: Looking 40 days into the future

South Korea has quickly become a model country for effectively containing Covid-19 without needing a national lockdown.

Given that the liberal democracy of South Korea is 40 days ahead of New Zealand on the epidemiological curve, it offers important lessons on how to balance an increase of economic activity with continued efforts towards virus elimination as New Zealand leaves Alert Level 4.

Despite the initial outbreak of the Shincheonji cluster in Daegu, South Korea has successfully ‘flattened the curve’ in its second phase.

Its robust ‘all-of-government’ attitude and deep coordination between the private and public sectors was boosted significantly by its experience with the MERS epidemic. That virus in 2015 taught the South Korean government it needed better medical infrastructure to deal with future pandemics.

This time around, South Korea implemented early and effective contact tracing made possible by its advanced digital infrastructure. Taking only 10 minutes per person to complete the test, South Korea’s contact tracing is now among the fastest in the world.

And it has conducted a lot of tests. With a combination of various drive-through and walk-through testing clinics, managed by its centralised public health care system, the East Asian nation has the capacity to do 20,000 tests each day, and has already conducted about 580,000.

Yet it still managed to facilitate a relatively open economy. It did this by sending teams to fumigate and disinfect public spaces while the government encouraged the use of face masks. Both measures have been widely lauded as key in preventing rampant community transmission.

The Korean governments early response to the outbreak, made possible by its own diligent lessons from previous pandemics, meant the country largely avoided a public health and an economic catastrophe.

President Moon Jae-in’s administration proved to be transparent with excellent and open communication to citizens which helped solidify great public cooperation and compliance to get the job done.

As New Zealand opens its economy a bit more next week, possibly down to Alert Level 3, it can learn from South Korea’s success. The Government must ensure it has rapid contract tracing and continue with high-volume testing while Kiwis continue to carefully comply with lockdown rules.

If South Korea is a model for what New Zealand can expect 40 days from now, then the Government should pay attention to avoid exacerbating the public health and economic catastrophe.

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