Tech prowess, trust in govt, hygiene culture: How South Korea tamed COVID-19 and the lessons it can offer India

South Korea is one of the few nations, such as Taiwan and Germany, that has managed to stay on its toes while handling the crisis

Preeti Nangal May 30, 2020 07:14:53 IST
Tech prowess, trust in govt, hygiene culture: How South Korea tamed COVID-19 and the lessons it can offer India

South Korea has relaxed its social distancing policies and people have ventured into the new normal of a post-COVID-19 world. Under the "everyday life quarantine" model, restaurants, schools, museums and sports complexes have resumed activities.

However, with 79 new infected cases registered (total cases coming up to 11,344), it is yet to be seen whether the economy of a nation can be brought back on track without imposing a strict lockdown.

South Korea is one of the few nations, such as Taiwan and Germany, that has managed to stay on its toes while handling the crisis. South Korea's success with ‘flattening the curve’ has been a role model for other nations.

Rather than scrambling to catch-up like Italy or USA, South Korea used extensive testing, contact tracing, quarantining and high-tech surveillance technology.

This pragmatism came from past experience with MERS outbreak in 2015, which led to rewriting its infectious disease law allowing quick access to a broad range of personal information of its citizens.

Manasvini Hariharan (28), an architect who lives in Seoul, feels that at this moment, however, the surveillance can be negotiated for a better public healthcare system.

Tech prowess trust in govt hygiene culture How South Korea tamed COVID19 and the lessons it can offer India

KDI School of Public Police and Management converted a snack shop into a 24-hour self-service store for convenience of students and installed thermal scanners at entry points of the dorm and school. Image courtesy: Arsh Dadwal 

“As a consumer of data, I feel at this moment it is okay because the identity of the patients is not revealed. They just give people a patient number. If they notice through the information that we have been around a contaminated person, they ask us to present ourselves for a test. We receive the information as emergency alerts like SMS frequently,” Hariharan said.

She added that the government has the legal right to “track their credit cards, our movement, which bus we were on and which restaurant we went to. And if we are tested positive, we will be quarantined.”

The government has been using tools such as smartphone GPS tracking, credit card records and surveillance video along with sending regular alerts via SMS-like notifications on mobile phones. In light of the concerns over misuse of personal data, measures like keeping patient identity anonymous are put in place but the history of their locations are shared to inform people about potentially infected areas.

People used to receive such information earlier as well but now get it more frequently. “They are coded into our sim cards. Everyone has to get their phones registered,” she said.

Another important reason that works in favour of South Korea, which may not necessarily work for other nations, is its demography, people’s trust in the government and personal health and hygiene culture.

“The transparency of the government from the very beginning in terms of using data to combat the epidemic made the patients and people less skeptical about sharing their details because the platforms using this data had been largely successful in slowing down the spread,” said Arsh Dadwal (24) who lives in Sejong.

She added that the citizens' participation was exceptional and primary to South Korea’s success. The reason why the citizens cooperated with the government was because the latter reached out to them with preventive measures as well as with “assurance on how the country will deal with the outbreak.”

“They were transparent about their policies,” Dadwal said.

Hariharan also added that when strict social distancing policies were introduced, her office was open as there was no news or update of a contaminated person in the area. “No one took the option of working from home,” Hariharan said.

Everyone, however, wore masks and took care of sanitising, “but everything else [was] pretty much the same.”

High literacy rate of South Korea has helped its population remain upto date than struggle to make sense of the pandemic unlike in relatively poor nations where the focus for the citizens is primarily on food and shelter.

“Physical distancing in Korea is affordable for most citizens including access to healthcare,” Dadwal noted.

Dadwal is completing her Masters in Public Policy at KDI School of Public Policy and Management, which has also come up with ingenious ways of aiding its students and making them feel secure. She said that the school installed self-check thermal scanners to measure body temperature. The Alumna Community also donated masks for the students. “Actually, I never had to buy a mask for myself,” Dadwal noted.

The school turned a 24-hour snack shop into a self-service store that's open between 9 am and 7 pm. “It is like an e-mart and we can buy food and groceries,” Dadwal said. “This arrangement was made in four days.”

With pretty much all facilities in place, home, however – miles away – remains one concern.

Dadwal’s family lives in Delhi. Since her mother is a police officer she has been having longer shifts. “Every time she comes home, she takes necessary precautions. It is hard for her and all of us as well but it is a part of her job.”

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