A hand wearing a medical glove holds a coronavirus positive blood sample. PHOTO: GETTY

Lessons Pakistan can learn from South Korea’s response to COVID-19

However, none of these measures can bear fruit if the masses fail to adhere to them

Amir Khan April 10, 2020
When looking at the statistics of COVID-19 it seems that South Korea stands apart from the rest of the world. The way the country has dealt with the pandemic is, on the face of it, quite remarkable. By late February and early March the number of new COVID-19 infections exploded from a few dozen to several thousands in the country. At the peak of the outbreak, South Korea was reporting over 900 new cases in a single day. However, within the next couple of weeks, the nation managed to tackle the pandemic by devising a comprehensive policy, bringing the new daily coronavirus cases to around 100.

At a time when the rest of the world is struggling to contain the pandemic, South Korea has largely managed to “flatten the curve” without massive lockdowns and draconian restrictions on movements. As a result, the fatality rate in South Korea currently is 1.99%, well below the global case fatality rate of 5.96%. Hence, since Pakistan now finds itself in the eye of the coronavirus storm, it may be helpful to study the manner in which South Korea has been able to fight the pandemic.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in adopted the principles of “Openness and Transparency” when it came to formulating a national response to COVID-19. The citizens were updated on the evolving situation, without any falsification of facts or figures, in order to build trust amongst the masses. South Korea adopted the “Triple-T” policy – trace, test and treat. South Koreans have been relentless in identifying, testing and isolating suspected patients. In collaboration with the local city administrations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was given the task of delivering information to suspected patients, monitoring their health trajectory, and detailing safety guidelines to the local residents via emergency alerts on mobile phones. As a result, the South Korean response teaches us five important things which Pakistan, and the rest of the world, can learn from.

Early response

Within the first week of the outbreak in South Korea the president called a meeting of the representatives of various medical corporations and urged them to start developing testing kits and other emergency medical equipment. By the next few weeks the country was self-sufficient and had started to produce 100,000 coronavirus testing kits per day and is now in a position to export them. An early government response in the city of Daegu, “which endured the first large coronavirus outbreak outside of mainland China”, ensured that the city now has no new coronavirus cases.

Isolate and test

The South Korean model proves that testing across the board is the key to early detection and an early response. Citizens are tested for coronavirus for free since the federal government, local governments and the country’s National Health Insurance (NHI) are bearing the responsibility of footing the bill. This in turn led to people actively getting tested and not hiding their symptoms. South Korea has thus far tested 503,051 individuals, with 20,000 people being tested daily in March, meaning that the country “was testing more people per capita than anywhere else in the world”. Additionally, screenings are taking place at all entrances and exits in the country, across work places, hospitals, malls etc. in order to identify even those with mild symptoms. Suspected cases are quickly isolated and then tested. Before shifting patients to the hospitals by using negative pressure ambulances, the medical personnel inform local residents about the route of the ambulance in order to ensure minimum contact. Furthermore, minimum exposure based drive-through testing facilities were also introduced to ensure the safety of health care workers and South Korean citizens. The drive-through model has also been tried in Pakistan, although not to the extent it is being employed in South Korea. All these measures helped in minimising the further spread by ensuring early detection and isolation.

Rapid contact tracing and disinfection

However, controversially, mass surveillance has also increased in a bid to combat the pandemic. The use of CCTV cameras, tracking credit card information and mobile phone data has helped South Korea identify the medical trajectories of patients and those whom they may have come in contact with. An application developed by the CDC takes only five minutes to identify the track record of patients and suspected coronavirus cases. Contacts are isolated rapidly and local residents are told to adopt safety measures and social distancing, possibly isolation, via emergency alerts. Furthermore, the homes of those who may have the virus are thoroughly disinfected. Disinfectants and hand sanitisers have been installed everywhere from public transport to work-spaces and residences.

Avoiding massive lockdowns and economic shutdowns by ensuring transparency

We in South Korea did not observe a forceful nationwide lockdown or economic shut down. Information is disseminated transparently and actions are taken swiftly to avoid cluster outbreaks, which helps in building an atmosphere of trust in the local communities. Companies are advised to screen and isolate their employees accordingly. Public awareness campaigns in the country have been widespread and there has been a real effort on part of the government to make the masses aware of the gravity of the situation.

Building trust and a sense of inclusion

South Korea was also able to maintain a smooth supply of consumer goods and medical supplies by building trust among the residents who, for the most part, have not resorted to panic buying. When there was a brief shortage of N95 masks for a single day the government asked the production companies to send a certain number of masks to the government. The authorities then distributed the masks at pharmacies and post offices. Each resident can only purchase two N95 masks per week on a designated day determined by the last number of one’s birth year. This one example demonstrates how South Korea has managed to ensure that supply chains are not disrupted, all consumer goods are available without any interruption, and no one has to resort to hoarding.

However, at the end of that day, none of these measures can bear fruit if the masses fail to adhere to them. The South Korean response is not just an example of how quick action on part of the government is essential but it also demonstrates that it is imperative for the masses to understand their responsibilities too. If Pakistan is to defeat the virus then it is vital that all the country’s citizens play their part.
Amir Khan The writer is currently pursuing his doctoral research in medicine at the Gachon University Gil Medical Centre, South Korea.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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