100 days have passed since the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed on 20 January, 2020, in South Korea. As of this writing (27 April, 2020), the accumulative cases that tested positive have reached 10,738 and fatalities 243. At present, the situation here is relatively stable. The curve of new cases peaked on 29 February at 909 new cases in one day alone. Yet as of last week, new cases stand at around 10 per day nationwide. More people have recovered than newly infected cases. As such, the South Korean government is currently trying to implement relaxing the policy of social distancing.
The Korean government responded early to the outbreak. The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) already had a system to mobilize government departments and resources in place. Preparation and early response were possible thanks to past disasters experience. The sinking of the Sewol ferry (in 2014) and the spread of MERS infection (in 2015), which took many lives, have resulted in the government being prepared for disaster response. In a way, the previous government’s failure to respond to both cases served as a stepping stone and led to the former president’s impeachment in 2017.
Government summarized the keywords of its response as openness and transparency. It has tried to reduce the economic impact of the pandemic by maintaining as much openness as possible in terms of immigration and also gained the public’s trust through transparency in sharing infection information in real time. Large-scale testing has been conducted, the movement of infected people was traced, the places they visited quickly disinfected, and identified contacts were self-contained. As a result of these measures, freedom of movement was not restricted and daily social life was maintained without major panic. Even the most infected Daegu city which made international headlines, was not fully quarantined. For a while, there were difficulties in buying masks, but these were resolved through centralized control over supply. And on April 15th, our general election was safely held and concluded.
The swift early response against the pandemic provided an opportunity for the ruling party to win a landslide victory in recent elections. The Democratic Party (DP) and the alliance party won 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly. This is the largest majority for a ruling party in parliament since democratization in 1987. The conservative opposition party, which criticized the government for failing with its economic policy, was resolutely defeated. President Moon Jae-in’s approval rate fell to 30 percent last year, however the rate reached to over 63 percent in recent polls. In other words, the public was satisfied and supported the government’s battle against COVID-19.
However, we still face many challenges. We will have to live with this virus for the time being. In order to engage in the ongoing long-term battle, it will be necessary for hospitals to be able to carry out infectious disease treatment and other general treatment simultaneously. Patients with fever now have to undergo COVID-19 testing first and wait for results that take more than 6 hours. Doing so can delay the treatment of an emergency patient and have fatal consequences. This was the case for a 17-year-old high school student who died from receiving emergency treatment while waiting for the results of a test last month.
We also need to prepare for what will be a second wave that is expected to hit this winter. In addition to the sufficient provisioning of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff, a negative pressure room is essential to prevent infection in the hospital. In addition to public hospitals, Korean private hospitals prepared these special rooms after the outbreak of MERS. Currently, Korea has 793 negative pressure rooms across the country, and the government wants to create 120 more. Such a plan requires immediate financial investment.
Furthermore, education must continue. Education in South Korea has never been suspended even during the Korean War. As of last month, all universities started online lectures involving all students, and this is running to date. At one point, servers from several universities crashed as many students connected simultaneously. As a result of this universities hurriedly purchased additional servers to deal with the additional demand. Professors and lecturers, who are over a month into online classes, are now getting used to this new mission and situation. However, schools and teachers in primary and secondary level that started online education last week are less prepared. In addition, they must prepare special measures for students in poor families.
One thing that requires mentioning is that this pandemic has exacerbated the economic situation for a wide range of people. To solve this problem, the Korean government is trying to distribute disaster subsidies to people directly. Local governments such as Jeonju City, Gyeonggi Province, and Seoul City took the lead in this, followed by the central government. The central government, however, debated over the method and scope of distribution for two months, and only recently decided to disburse subsidies to all citizens. While waiting, there were concerns that people were getting tired and missed the ‘golden time’ of emergency treatment.
However, one problem with this disaster subsidy is that many foreign migrants are excluded. For example, in Gyeonggi-do, 500,000 of the 600,000 foreign residents are not receiving the subsidy. Foreign workers are vulnerable to infections due to the fragile housing environment and economic hardship caused by the suspension of operations. The recent bad news in Singapore, of which the Korean media has shown deep concern, reminds us that no one should be left behind on the front against infectious diseases.
Trade is crucial for the Korean economy. China is the number one source of trade for Korea and ASEAN as a block, the second. Therefore, the negative impact of this pandemic on Korea’s trade is huge. The Korean government wants to solve the crisis through solidarity and has been active in holding the ASEAN + 3 Special Summit and stimulating East Asian regional cooperation through this scheme. Moon’s government, which is promoting a people-centered New Southern Policy, also wants to increase support for Southeast Asian countries fighting COVID-19.
At present, Korean citizens have a moment to catch their breath and start paying attention and interest in other countries’ struggles against the pandemic. They are proud of the fact that their nation can help other nations in trouble and seek help. Yet it is sadly ironic that Koreans are raising awareness of the global citizenship whilst countries around the world are closing their doors.
27 April, 2020
Je Seong Jeon is currently leading a 6-year research project team on labor, healthcare and welfare systems in Southeast Asia as the Director of JISEAS (Jeonbuk National University Institute for Southeast Asian Studies) in Korea. He received his Ph.D. from Seoul National University in 2002 on labor movements in democratizing Indonesia. He has published various books on Southeast Asia and Korea including Era Emas Hubungan Indonesia-Korea (Kompas, 2014) and Southeast Asian Studies in Korea: The History, Trends and Analysis (Seoul National University Press, 2019). He was a Visiting Research Scholar at Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University in 2012.
Je Seong Jeon. 2020. “South Korea: Openness, Transparency and Solidarity Coping with COVID-19” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.