What’s fuelling Korea’s coronavirus success and relapse

18-May-2020 Intellasia | Politico | 6:02 AM Print This Post

You’d think South Koreans would all have Covid-19 by now. With a population almost as big as England’s in combined habitable space the size of Belgium, they are more bunched together than almost any other people.

And yet, despite this disadvantage, they successfully controlled the outbreak in the last three months with a strategy of testing and tracing that obviated the need for a lockdown.

Just under 11,000 people have caught the virus since the first reported case on January 20. That translates into one patient in every 4,450 people. Of these, 260 people have died and more than 1,000 remain isolated.

Korea’s strategy of targeted testing and aggressive contact tracing has been held up as a successful example of how to contain the virus even as other countries have been slow to adopt it.

Partly, Korea has done well because it has experience in this type of event and because, as a society, people were already used to wearing face masks and using hand sanitiser a type of readiness that is hard to replicate.

But they are not in the clear yet. With a surge of cases in the past week, just as the country was relaxing regulations, authorities are anticipating a second wave and turning up their response by several notches.

While the initial wave of infections was mostly centered on the southern city of Daegu, in the past week, more than 100 new cases have been linked to Itaewon, a shopping and entertainment area in Seoul. The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this cluster is linked at to a 29-year-old man who tested positive on May 6 after visiting gay clubs and bars in the early hours of May 2.

And this time, the tracing strategy is not working so well. Given social attitudes toward homosexuality in Korea, where even the politically liberal tend to be socially conservative, many people known to have been in the area appear to be afraid to respond to government calls to submit to testing.

It may be a combination of all three. Part of the explanation for Korea’s success story so far is the fact it went into the crisis well-prepared.

Korea’s disease control system had been refined after its experience with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. A key legal provision introduced at that time gave the government the right to override privacy laws, which are strong in Korea, in such instances.

One month before the outbreak, Korea’s leadership also went through a simulation based on a pandemic scenario. So they were ready when the real thing happened.

The country’s well-developed biotech industry was also key. It sprang into action quickly to produce testing kits, and health workers were soon testing 15,000 people a day. Many of the 695,000 people who have taken tests so far have done so in drive-in facilities where there is no need to get out of the car.

While health information was made public so that people could avoid areas where infected people had been, authorities keep the identity of patients confidential and this includes reassurances to illegal immigrants.

This was unfortunate for many small businesses, and even unfair, as oftentimes the buildings, shops and restaurants identified had been disinfected by the time people took the decision to avoid them.

But, at this stage of the battle against Covid-19, transparency was essential and took priority over economic damage. The approach wasn’t challenged.

The country’s highly developed e-commerce and home delivery systems also helped ease the pain. There was no panic buying, no shelves devoid of toilet paper. Orders made late at night appeared on people’s doorstep by dawn.

Beyond Korea’s infrastructure and more tangible markers of readiness, the country’s success especially in comparison to the burgeoning disaster in Europe quickly gave rise to theorising about politics and religion.

The Koreans are obedient, said punters (including Korean punters), thanks to their traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Their recent experience with authoritarianism and nationalism also surely made them more willing to accept the intrusion of surveillance technology and strict government control, others suggested.

It’s a tempting, but misleading, theory.

Koreans are as schooled in their own liberty as anyone else. And, as with most people, they have been willing to accept small intrusions to reduce the likelihood of infection.

To be sure, there has always been an ethical imperative of obedience in Korea. As one psychologist once explained to me, “You Westerners have a tradition of rebellion that started with Adam and Eve. But in our culture, from following our older brothers’ orders to marrying who our parents choose for us, we have always been pressured to obey.” Confucianism made a virtue out of suppression of self.

Koreans’ forms of courtesy may make them appear obedient and deferential (just as English manners gave rise to the idea, among Koreans at least, that all English people are “gentlemen”) but all is not what it at first seems. Koreans may nod in appreciation when you express your opinion, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think you’re an idiot.

In short, Confucius left the building some time ago. Far from being obedient, the Koreans are, on the contrary, so fractious and disobedient that it takes some effort to get them to acquiesce a point, incidentally, that explains why the regime in North Korea is so monstrous. (The break there will come when the regime no longer has the means or the will to slaughter its own.)

In free South Korea, this fractiousness has resulted in a view of democracy that posits that it is the job of politicians to make real the will of the people, rather than act as delegates representing a majority of their constituency.

Given that “the people” don’t really exist, this allows for a lot of wiggle room. But it does mean that government is petrified of running afoul of “public sentiment” the perceived will of the people as expressed variously in media, online commentary and street protest.

A real screw-up with Covid-19 could have resulted in a serious move to impeach. Such a prospect naturally focuses presidential thinking on results.

Beside the frequent use of face masks a result of Korea’s air quality being among the worst in the world there is another cultural factor at play in the country’s response to the crisis: unhappiness.

Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. It also has one of the highest suicide rates. The statistics here combine to send a very loud cry of misery. The turning point came more than 20 years ago with the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which resulted in widespread layoffs and the collapse of thousands of small businesses.

Until then, Koreans had been raised to see their role in life as contributing to the nation, and the nation’s expressed end goal was economic strength. Love, or happiness, or even individual economic success, was not the goal. The purpose of your life was to serve that group end.

The result speaks for itself. Today, Korea is a fantastically developed country whose people are more miserable than their poor, hard-working parents were 30 years ago.

This has knock-on effects. Koreans, being highly group-oriented, are shackled by concern about what they think other people think of them. This, and a tendency for parents and elders to still interfere in life decisions like career and partner choices, mean that there are a lot of people living frustrated and unfulfilled lives.

Combine this sense of being watched, with a strong sense of hierarchy, a bad habit of ranking everything and everyone, and a new dog-eat-dog competition, and you also get a high degree of fatalism.

Where the optimistic American may strut down the street confident that all will be well, the fatalistic Korean envisages himself catching the virus. He is therefore already motivated to do what is already familiar put on a face mask once he’s out of the house and use the hand sanitiser that’s on his desk, at the entrance of his building, in restaurants and everywhere else he goes.

He was already doing this while the government was being criticised for dithering. And whether culture or simply chance, it may have been the very thing that made all the difference slowing the spread of a highly contagious virus.

The flip side to all this, of course, may be what puts Korea at risk in the next phase of its pandemic. If evading public scrutiny means you are pushed into the shadows, it also means you may behave more riskily in a pandemic just as you are harder to track and trace.

Pressure to fit into the mold contributed to suppression of the virus until now. It might do just the opposite this time around.

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/14/whats-fuelling-south-koreas-coronavirus-success-and-relapse-260115

 


Category: Korea

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