South Korea, a model in the fight against Covid-19 thanks to its people

Prof Eusun Lee explains South Korea's successes. This month began with around 500 cases per day, now they just over one hundred. People immediately followed the rules and common sense. For many experts, large-scale diagnostic capability is the key to controlling the epidemic.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – The South Korean government reacted quickly and effectively to the coronavirus emergency, but the merit for the country’s success goes to the people and their responsible behaviour, said Prof Eusun Lee, emergency medicine specialist at the Korea University Guro Hospital in Seoul, who spoke to AsiaNews about her country's progress in the fight against the spread of Covid-19 virus.

More than 215,000 cases have been reported so far around the world with more than 8,800 deaths. In an attempt to slow the pandemic, many governments are resorting to strict measures of prevention, like closing borders or forcing people to self-isolate. However, South Korea, which had the most cases outside of China until overtaken by Italy, has emerged as a symbol of hope and a model to follow.

Today, South Korean health authorities reported a rise in new daily infections with new outbreaks in the south-eastern city of Daegu, as well as in the capital Seoul and neighbouring areas. Yesterday, 152 new cases were detected, reversing four days of double-digit daily new infections, bringing the nation's total number of cases to 8,565, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

However, yesterday’s number, whilst similar to the 100 or more daily infections reported last week, is much lower than the 500 or more daily infections recorded in the first week of this month.

So far, 91 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea. Two more fatalities were reported earlier today, but they have not been included in an official update. The KCDC said 59 virus patients are in critical condition.

As of yesterday, 1,947 patients have been dismissed from hospitals after fully recovering from the novel coronavirus, up by 407 from a day earlier, the biggest one-day release so far.

“From the first days of the emergency, [South] Koreans have shown great civic responsibility,” said Prof Eusun Lee. “So many have reduced travel to a minimum and went out only when necessary wearing protective masks.”

“People immediately followed rules and common sense: In case of cough, cover your mouth, wash your hands often, keep far away from each other.”

“Another important fact is that [South] Koreans use home delivery services. The delivery system is well developed in South Korea. In my opinion, this keep people from going out,” reducing the danger of spreading the virus.

For many experts, large-scale diagnostic capacity was key to controlling the epidemic in South Korea. Eusun Lee agrees. In the past, “We head the experience of MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) five years ago. At the time, the [South] Korean government upgraded medical facilities in big hospitals.”

At the same time, “Korean companies that make diagnostic tools improved their products, and they are now exporting to other countries.” Some “used AI (artificial intelligence) systems” to develop their products.

When Chinese scientists first published the COVID-19 virus' genetic sequence in January, at least four South Korean firms quietly began developing and stockpiling test kits alongside the government – well before the country had its first outbreak.

When things began to get worse, the authorities could test more than 10,000 people a day, even at makeshift drive-through testing centres and newly added consultation phone booths at hospitals.

The government has put in place the largest and most well-organised testing programme in the world, combined with extensive efforts to isolate infected people and track down and quarantine those who have come into contact with them. More than 270,000 people have been tested.

However, “Daegu has a bed shortage for patients who need medical assistance in the intensive care units.” The city “has almost 90 per cent of patients in South Korea.” But in the event of an emergency, the “government can requisition accommodations such as hostels and boarding schools.” People who are not serious sick can be accommodated there. “One or two doctors and nurses take care of them.”

“Those who are in more serious conditions go to the big hospital”, explained Prof Lee, the Keimyung University Daegu Dongsan Hospital. “This hospital is reserved for coronavirus patients. The non-infected patients went to other hospitals or cities. People most at risk, like the elderly, find a place in the other hospitals in the city.”

“Personally, I am scared of the infection. However, since I work at a university medical facility, I have enough masks and other protective kit. Many of my colleagues went to Daegu City.” Here, “every day they get about a hundred news patients. There is still shortage of medical resources but many doctors and nurses continue to volunteer.”

Ultimately, the most important lesson that other countries can learn from the way South Korea is handling the emergency is the synergy between government and people. for Prof Lee, this means “following the government [guidelines] and stay home.” (PF)