Why was South Korea successful in combating COVID-19?


Currently, the novel coronovirus has spread to 108 countries worldwide. During the initial outbreak, South Korea suffered the most amount of COVID-19 cases, second to China, with a total of 8,565 South Koreans infected.

Most affected countries have imposed a “lockdown”, halting all transit and most businesses and recreational activities that facilitate people to people contact. Such extreme measures have been taken as a precaution to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

However, South Korea, one of the worst-hit countries, managed to control its number of emerging cases within 2 weeks without having to resort to a lockdown. Near the tail-end of February, South Korea was reporting new COVID-19 cases in the several hundreds, a number which saw a steady decline due a comprehensive response strategy that forwent barring public transport and activities, and saw recoveries surpass emerging cases by 13th March. Since then, South Korea has reported new cases in the several dozens, with a fatality rate of roughly 1%.

What did South Korea do to successfully manage the pandemic?

Immediately after China made the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus public, South Korea began to develop its own COVID-19 testing kits when it only had a handful of cases. These kits were then distributed to various hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centers to screen and test large swathes of people in order to identify possible clusters.

But South Korea’s success story didn’t have an easy start. A middle-aged woman, now notoriously known as “Patient 31”, a “super-spreader” who attended 2 religious congregations at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus despite displaying COVID-19 symptoms, had exposed thousands to the virus. Till date, COVID-19 positive members of the Shincheonji constitute roughly 60% of the national total.

This number could have ballooned have South Korean authorities failed to acquire information on Patient 31’s movements and acquire the complete list of approximately 9,300 church-goers who they promptly tested. Authorities also traced and identified persons infected Shincheonji members had contacted, and then traced and identified who those persons were in contact with and so on.

So far, South Korea has tested 270,000 individuals – about 56,000 tests per 1 million Koreans. In comparison, the US has managed to conduct 74 tests per 1 million Americans.

South Korea’s edge in combating the spread of COVID-19 is technology. More specifically, the South Korean government utilized app tech to help ensure preventative behaviors among the populace. One app identified possibly infected routes and zones that people could avoid in order to minimize risk of exposure and infection.

South Korea has also shown its strength in its diagnostic capabilities – currently, South Korea has the ability to test 20,000 individuals a day. A large testing sample also allows officials to identify possible clusters early on, and prevent future mass outbreaks.

The East-Asian country has also ensured complete transparency of information, before and after the outbreak, which facilitated an eagerness amongst South Koreans to adhere to the directives of its government. Shincheonji was a popularly known example of public gatherings being high-risk environments for the spread of the disease, and South Koreans took it to heart. The government recommended “social-distancing”, a phrase coined by President Moon Jae-in in his campaign against the virus, was one of the preventative measures South Koreans followed to the letter.

By managing to effectively control the spread of the virus in 2 weeks, South Korea has proven that rather than panic, adhering to preventative strategies and measures are necessary in combating COVID-19. Affected countries need to look toward the South Korean model of prompt response, tracing and identifying clusters, and conducting widespread testing, in order to minimize the spread of the novel-coronavirus and reinstate normalcy in our way of living.


Report by Ahmed Saeed