SEOUL: Over the past week, as the United States and Europe began to wake up to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and slip into panic, something very different has been happening in South Korea.
Nearly two months into the country’s outbreak, the general level of social anxiety has eased as the number of new COVID-19 cases has in most recent days been in the 80 to 90 range, far lower than the several hundred new infections reported per day throughout much of February.
At the scariest point of the outbreak thus far, South Korea reported 909 new cases on Feb 29. There is a sense that vigilance is still required, but there may not be a need to panic.
NORMALCY HAS RETURNED TO SEOUL
In Seoul, the normally bustling capital, a cautious sense of normalcy has returned. While working at home last week, I heard children playing in our neighborhood park for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
When I went to buy hand soap, the supermarket shelves were not only full; antibacterial soap was even on special discount.
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Many coffee shops in the city’s commercial areas have steady flows of customers, and there are even some people not wearing face masks while out walking around.
Those jarring mobile phone alerts from local governments, alerting the public to the details of new infections in their area, have come in far less frequently.
The outside world has taken notice. South Korea, which is used to garnering foreign media coverage related to either its pop cultural exports or hostile northern neighbour, has basked in laudatory attention from overseas.
International observers have asked after the secret to its success in going from hosting one of the world’s most alarming COVID-19 outbreaks to being perhaps the most encouraging example of how an outbreak can be brought under control. So how did we get here?
AGGRESSIVELY FLATTENING THE CURVE
As many observers have noted, South Korea has been extraordinarily aggressive in testing for COVID-19. This country of 51 million people has tested roughly 20,000 people per day, and 3,692 per million people, making it by far the world leader on a per-capita basis.
With some exceptions, the South Korean public has largely responded to the COVID-19 outbreak with discipline and restraint, following directives to step up hygiene and avoid large groups of people. Nearly all of the country’s public events have been called off, and everyone who can is working from home.
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Health authorities have clearly communicated every day with the public, announcing the developments in addressing the outbreak and sharing guidelines on how to stay healthy.
South Korea also benefits from an educated population with large numbers of healthcare professionals. A culture of sacrifice in times of need has kept them on the job for long hours.
FAR FROM OVER
However, for all its success, the country’s battle is far from over. Though since South Korea’s first case was reported in January, and a large majority of infections were concentrated and largely confined to in and around the city of Daegu, a few hours south of Seoul, “cluster infections” have been discovered in the Seoul area.
One such cluster occured at an insurance company call centre at a key transit hub in the city’s southwest, and another was reported at a church in a southern suburb.
The fear is that if infections in the densely-populated capital area are not contained, COVID-19 could spread beyond any hope of control and overwhelm the country’s public health infrastructure.
So far, the government’s characteristically assertive response is holding the clusters in check.
Yet, on the domestic front, the South Korean government’s response has not been met with universal acclaim. The political opponents of President Moon Jae-in have accused his administration of being asleep at the wheel.
Moon had been criticised for an early remark that COVID-19 wouldn’t last long, and for the clumsy optics of holding a jovial lunch with Parasite director Bong Joon-ho in February when COVID-19 cases were climbing rapidly.
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The Moon administration also fumbled in efforts to ensure a steady supply of face masks, and defied public sentiment by refusing to enact a comprehensive entry ban on all travellers from China.
WHAT THE WEST CAN LEARN
That being said, on the imperative matter of containing the spread of COVID-19, South Korea has done well overall.
It had some subtle, built-in advantages. Anyone who has spent time in South Korea can tell you that the country’s collective culture can sometimes be stifling, with the insistence on being mindful of group dynamics, of doing things in a way that doesn’t upset group harmony.
This way of thinking is helpful in times of crisis, as it feels natural to stick to codes of behavior that protect the common good. If anyone in South Korea boasted on social media about defying calls for social distancing, they would be not only be ridiculed, but castigated as a public health risk.
Western countries are now asking if it is possible to replicate South Korea’s success. That will require an evolution in societal behavioural norms and values.
To me, the complacency with which parts of the Western world responded to the news of the spread of COVID-19 was unsurprising. Many have the luxury of living with a sense that things have been pretty good for as long as anyone can remember. That can lead to the wrong assumption that things will always be fine.
Also, western societies are highly individualistic, leading many to think that they, as individuals, are somehow safe from a general risk, that while an illness may affect the elderly or infirm, they will nevertheless get by.
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Many Koreans have at least indirect experience of war and economic downfall; they know how developments can spiral out of control despite best efforts and will generally err on the side of being overly cautious.
But societies in the larger developed world, including my home country of Canada, have neither experience with nor recent memory of calamity.
Another factor is that COVID-19 originated in East Asia and is aligned with exotic stereotypes about consumption of wild animals and inadequate sanitation in this part of the world. You couldn’t possibly catch the virus if you didn’t engage in such practices, the thinking goes in some quarters.
This problematic mindset, coupled with travel bans and geographical distances, have reinforced a false sense of security in the western world.
As China, the initial epicentre of the outbreak, reported a string of recent days with no new locally transmitted COVID-19 infections this week, and Europe emerges as the key battleground of this pandemic fight, the West is being forced to confront the blindspots in its national psyche.
So while Koreans may be tempted to relax and congratulate themselves, officials know it’s too early for that. Preventive measures are still in place and new cases are still being reported.
The cautiously happy story of South Korea therefore currently rests on a troubling question: If a country that did almost everything right still has a persistent outbreak, what hope do other countries have in managing COVID-19? Can the virus ever be vanquished?
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Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.