The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Korea’s coronavirus success story underscores how the U.S. initially failed


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There seems to be no shortage of grim tidings for those in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, public-health officials are bracing for cases of infection to skyrocket and hospitals to get overcrowded. The U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, warned Monday that there’s “every chance that we could be Italy” — a bleak analogy given the mounting death toll in Europe’s worst-affected country.

But elsewhere there are greater signs of encouragement. Apart from China, South Korea was one of the worst-hit countries in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. But an aggressive response has made it one of the exemplars in the midst of the pandemic — thanks to its swift implementation of a mass-scale testing regime as well as its consistent, transparent messaging to the public throughout the arc of the crisis. On both counts in the initial months of the outbreak, the Trump administration fared poorly.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) questioned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield on March 12. (Video: Reuters)

In South Korea, infections surged over a 10-day span in late February when a cluster of a few dozen cases mushroomed into more than 5,000. But rates of infection have slowed since the country snapped into action. Out of more than 8,000 confirmed cases of the virus, only 75 people have died so far — a fatality rate lower than the 3 percent average seen worldwide.

“Testing is central because that leads to early detection, it minimizes further threat, and it quickly treats those found with the virus,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told the BBC.

More than a quarter-million South Koreans have been tested for the virus. “South Korea now has the ability to test up to 20,000 people a day at 633 testing sites nationwide, including drive-through clinics and pop-up facilities parked in front of newly infected buildings,” detailed the Wall Street Journal. “Samples get transported by van—where they are stored at about 40-degrees Fahrenheit in airtight containers—to 118 laboratories. An army of around 1,200 medical professionals analyze results.”

So far the United States has managed a fraction of that. Some states have moved to copy these pop-up facilities, but the system is uneven and lurching into motion well after the virus has likely spread through major American cities. In South Korea — as well as Taiwan, another notable success story in the battle against the coronavirus — the experience of recent deadly epidemics, including the 2003 SARS outbreak and 2015 MERS outbreak, helped build the foundations for both an effective governmental and societal response. Draconian lockdowns were eschewed for sophisticated tracking of potential infections and vigilant monitoring.

“Because South Korea has had these types of outbreaks already occur, they know the kind of steps that need to be taken and how serious the danger is,” Leighanne Yuh, an academic at Korea University, told the Financial Times. “If we compare it to the United States, which hasn’t really been exposed to these things, at least for a long time, their response has been quite different.”

It doesn’t hurt either that South Korean authorities ensured testing was essentially free to all and that the country’s single-payer health care system does not disincentivize low-income people from seeking preventive treatment, as is often the case in the United States.

And then there’s the question of leadership. President Trump spun the crisis as a Chinese menace easily dealt with at U.S. borders. He bemoaned his political opponents for inflating a minor threat. And he repeatedly shared inaccurate information and advice to Americans about the reach of the virus and the government’s capacity to reckon with it. Only at a briefing Monday, where Trump indicated the outbreak could last till the late summer, did it seem the president had finally grasped the reality of the situation.

The Yang Ji General Hospital in Seoul opened booths on March 16, where people can get tested for coronavirus without being in direct contact with medical staff. (Video: The Washington Post)

Contrast that with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has taken a back seat as health officials communicate twice a day to the public about the state of the outbreak.

“Moon, like Trump, has strong ideological beliefs and faces an upcoming election,” wrote Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University. “But Moon has shown a far greater willingness to take corona seriously and allow experts to run the response. There has been nothing here like Trump’s dithering over the last month, or his bizarre public announcements that this will just go away soon or is under control. Nor has there been anything as unhinged as the conspiracy theorizing so widespread on Trumpist media.”

President Trump held a news conference on the coronavirus on March 13 in the Rose Garden, declaring a national emergency. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“No nation’s response has been perfectly effective, but the high degree of transparency and competency of South Korean health officials provides helpful lessons about containment efforts for other countries, and about the nature of this pandemic for the international scientific community,” noted Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society in New York City.

That type of openness and transparency, Lee Tae-ho, vice minister of foreign affairs, told reporters last week, builds “public trust” and leads to “a very high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation that strengthens our collective effort to overcome this public-health emergency.”

In many democracies farther west, such civic awareness and public trust is far less assured.