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Clear communication, mass testing: How South Korea is effectively battling Covid-19

A spike in Covid-19 cases in late February in South Korea led to testing on a scale replicated in few other regions.

People wearing masks are seen at Sindorim Station in Seoul, South Korea.
People wearing masks are seen at Sindorim Station in Seoul, South Korea.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

AS COUNTRIES ACROSS Europe work to contain the spread of Covid-19, South Korea reports a decrease in confirmed cases. 

The country, which had been recording 500 to 600 new cases each day earlier this month, is now reporting less than 100 new cases per day.  

Through clear public communication and testing on a massive scale, South Korea appears to be effectively tackling Coronavirus. That’s not to say it came without sacrifice, State edicts and intrusion of personal data.

These are the measures that have been taken.

‘Extensive Testing’ 

A spike in Covid-19 cases in late February in South Korea led to testing on a scale replicated in few other regions.  

Speaking to BBC last week, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said she thinks extensive testing has been key to South Korea’s low Coronovirus fatality rate, and said governments have a responsibility to “guard against panic”.

86 people have died from Covid-19 in South Korea. By comparison, in France, which has less confirmed cases (7,730), 175 people have died. 

“Even as the ranks of the infected swelled by several thousand, the aggressive testing has given health officials here the ability to spot outbreaks as they emerge, focus resources on those areas and isolate those with the potential to spread the virus,” reported Victoria Kim for Los Angeles Times on Saturday. 

In South Korea, early detection, isolation and treatment has translated into a low mortality rate of about 0.7%, compared with more than 3% worldwide.

Part of South Korea’s success in tackling Covid-19 is its prepardenss. 

The country experienced the MERS outbreak in 2015. As a result, the country overhauled its Centre for Diseas Control and Prevention and ensured that test kits could be approved rapidly for future use. 

Almost 300,000 people have now been tested in South Korea for Covid-19 which, as of yesterday, had 8,413 confirmed cases. 

By mid-February, South Korea had tested nearly 10,000 people for Coronavirus in an effort to detect as many cases as possible. The country also pioneered the “drive-through” testing method now being employed around Europe and at Croke Park. 

The country has also made testing free for most of those who have been screened and has covered associated medical costs.  

Yesterday, a South Korean hospital introduced a phone booth-style Coronavirus testing facility that allows medical staff to examine patients from behind the safety of a plastic panel, the latest innovation in the country’s drive to track down infections.

The row of four booths – which use negative air pressure to prevent harmful particles from escaping outside – stand under a tented shelter outside the H Plus Yangji Hospital in Seoul.

Each patient steps into the box for a rapid consultation by intercom with a medical professional who, if necessary, takes their samples by swabbing their nose and throat using arm-length rubber gloves built into the panel.

The whole process takes about seven minutes and the booth is then disinfected and ventilated.

‘Invasive’ 

However effective South Korea’s response has been in recent weeks, though, criticism has been levelled regarding personal intrusion. 

Last week, the country’s capital Seoul said it planned to limit the amount of information it releases about patients amid criticism that too much personal information was being shared.

The director of South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Jung Eun-kyeong, said her agency is drafting a new guideline for local governments to prevent them from releasing details that are unnecessary for quarantine and prevention work.

Health authorities have been actively using personal information — including immigration, public transport, credit card and smartphone GPS data — to track patients and their contacts as part of a widespread contact-tracing effort. 

Details about the places patients visited before testing positive are posted online and shared through smartphone alerts to inform people who may have been in their vicinity.

South Korea’s Human Rights Commission raised concerns about the release of the data, saying patients were being exposed to “criticism, ridicule and hate”.

‘Clusters’

Meanwhile, Mayor of Daegu – South Korea’s worst-hit city – said yesterday that 87 new cases have been discovered from local nursing hospitals, raising concerns about a possible spike in infections after they had waned over the past week.

As seen in Italy and elsewhere, clusters remain a key concern. 

Daegu mayor Kwon Young-jin said 74 of the cases came from a single hospital and that the 57 patients who were infected would be transferred to other facilities for treatment.

The infections at nursing homes were not fully reflected in national figures announced by South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), which said the cases in Daegu rose by 46.

The KCDC says 116 cases and 10 deaths have been linked to a hospital in Cheongdo, near Daegu, where infections surged among patients at a psychiatric ward.

Although South Korea’s efforts have undoubtedly stemmed the spread of Covid-19, officials remain vigilant. 

The country has been recording fewer than 100 new cases a day this week – a significant decrease from the 500-600 earlier this month – yet authorities are warning of new small cluster infections emerging in the metropolitan area where half of the South’s 51 million population is concentrated.

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