South Korea’s Top-Tier Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Kevin Na & Andrew Shinho Kim


South Korea’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

With its huge reduction of coronavirus cases, South Korea has received world-wide acclaim for its successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially its decisive initial measures. One key factor that made this achievement possible was the massive distribution of test kits.


Back in 2015, South Korea learned many lessons from the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak which significantly impacted Korea’s economy. Based on past experience, the most important lesson that Korea learned was that speed is crucial. Therefore, the slow system of approval of new medical equipment was modified to prepare for future outbreaks. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) also established a protocol to speed up the process of analyzing infectious diseases.


By allowing the emergency use of new RT-PCR kits (a type of COVID-19 testing kit) in a timely manner and rapidly developing test kits, South Korea’s government was able to respond quickly to the rise of initial COVID-19 cases. According to the Korean Herald, the largest daily news organization in Korea, several Korean medical companies tackled the problem at once and successfully developed many RT-PCR test kits. Many of them proved to be effective — accurate results were produced in under 6 hours. Between February 7 and March 10, over 350,000 patients were tested with the test kits, allowing for more analysis inside private institutions. As a result of the successful development, companies like Seegene, Solgent, and Sugentech were approved to export their test kits to other countries.


The researchers also utilized artificial intelligence to confront the rapid propagation of COVID-19 cases. For instance, artificial intelligence was used to extensively analyze patients with COVID-19 (from China) to determine other mutated forms of the coronavirus. Even before COVID-19 hit Korea on January 19, many medical companies used sample cases that occurred in other countries to identify mutations and develop its RT-PCR test kits. Seegene, a biotech company, used artificial intelligence to analyze the fastest delivery method of test kits. By maximizing the use of artificial intelligence, the Korean government was able to carry out a strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


The History of the South Korean Healthcare System

In South Korea, there is universal healthcare which is funded by government subsidies. This allows 100% of the population to be covered by the core set of services. By the year 1989, South Korea had transformed from limited healthcare infrastructures and fragmented financing to a health care system that has one of the highest life expectancies and the lowest levels of health expenditures.


After 1953, when the Korean War (1950-1953) ended, South Korea’s healthcare system received help from the Minnesota project (1955-1961), through which the University of Minnesota and the Seoul National University worked together to educate a new generation of health professionals. The Minnesota project influenced the modern Korean healthcare system and helped introduce medical knowledge and methodology to Korean medical providers. In 1963, South Korea implemented the Medical Insurance Act, which stipulated that corporations provided health insurance to its employees. Later on, former President Park Chung Hee introduced the Medical Aid Program, allowing low-income families to receive medical services. Subsequently, the insurance extended to government workers and self-employed individuals, and the national insurance would continually extend to cover the entire country by 1989. Through a slow and gradual process, South Korea achieved universal health care for all its citizens. The National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) was founded in 2000 to become the single national health insurer.


The Golden Standard of Healthcare Response to a Global Pandemic

Every country has had a different approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. If we take a closer look into South Korea’s approach to COVID-19, however, we can find many interesting details. South Korea showcased its top-tier healthcare system to the world when it led an exemplary response to the pandemic. To a certain extent, its healthcare system responded effectively thanks to its past history with pandemics.


In May 2015, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus posed a massive threat to South Korea. According to Dr. Kim Woo Joo from Korea University Guro Hospital, "It lasted only two months, but there was a big panic in South Korea.” In fact, MERS, a highly infectious disease, caused the death of 36 patients and infected 186 people; shockingly, according to the KCDC, 83% of transmission events occurred due to five superspreaders. The most important lesson from this outbreak was the importance of diagnostic tests. This outbreak convinced the South Korean authorities to prepare and establish basic infection prevention measures within healthcare facilities. From the past MERS pandemic, additionally, the South Korean community members developed a stronger common goal that they would prioritize public health over privacy. There is a general consensus that public health has greater importance because it connects directly to the well-being of the citizens and the economy.


There were several ways in which South Korea responded particularly well to COVID-19. South Korea experienced the first case of COVID-19 earlier than most countries, and it was also one of the first few countries to execute and administer mass COVID-19 testing among its citizens. In response to COVID-19, South Korea implemented fast government response with test kits and widespread, high-volume testing. Moreover, South Korea’s healthcare system and KCDC effectively established protocols to treat and quarantine infected individuals as well as disinfect contaminated environments. Furthermore, South Korea was one of the very few countries that did not seal off its borders. There are some countries that imposed strict restrictions on overseas arrivals; however, South Korea instead adopted special entry procedures for people who came to the country from overseas. Regardless of the point of departure, everyone who entered the country was required to self-quarantine for 14 days, and they were led to facilities that can test for COVID-19 upon arrival. Then, they were required to install a self-diagnosis app and inform the KCDC about their quarantine status.


How should the world have responded to COVID-19?

During a health crisis, the government plays a huge role in conveying and disseminating essential information to reduce uncertainties and anxieties. South Korea almost immediately imposed a contact tracing system, which specifically traced and investigated the routes of each positive case. In addition, it rallied an immediate unified response through national organizations to fight the pandemic together. Many organizations including news organizations began providing information to the public through press briefings to communicate a list of places that infected people have visited. The government was transparent in the release of information and not only did it by disseminating updates to the public through daily press briefings, but there were also frequent real-time message updates to the general public through a messaging system that is hard-coded into every phone. Moreover, there were many practical pieces of advice with detailed preventive measures on viral transmission advertised on websites, crowded public spaces, and newspapers to remind people to utilize personal hygiene and the best practices. These measures allowed the general public to have a heightened awareness and education on differentiating the effective and ineffective practices.


As of August 4th, these are the statistics from South Korea’s KCDC:

Graphic from KCDC

For more information, please visit the official website for Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC): http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/en/.


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