[Analytics] The year of the pandemic: a view from South Korea

This file photo shows tables and chairs that are not being used to keep social distancing at a cafe in Seoul. (Yonhap). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

In the global coronavirus pandemic, South Koreans should be dropping like flies. But they aren’t. Michael Breen specially for the STAT.

Perched on the edge of China, the country is small, about the size of Indiana, though given that 70% of the land is uninhabitable, the realistic comparison is West Virginia. Packed into that space are 51 million people, the populations of Texas and Florida combined.

The country should have been decimated after the first infected passenger off the three-hour flight from Wuhan, China, sneezed.

But somehow the Republic of Korea, which most Americans know as South Korea, has controlled the pandemic. As I write this, only 29,000 South Koreans have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and fewer than 500 have died from it. About 2,000 residents remain isolated. These numbers are like Delaware’s, which has 50 times fewer people.

The pandemic, of course, is not a competition between countries. While we take pride in how South Korea has been doing during this terrible time, we’re watching aghast as other areas of the planet bear the brunt of the pandemic.

No one fully understands why South Korea has gotten off lightly — at least so far.

The low level of obesity in the country may play a role, as obesity is a risk factor for a poor outcome with the infection. And we’re not that touchy feely. Yes, we spread germs by dipping our spoons and chopsticks into shared bowls, but we don’t hug and kiss. In fact, even spouses don’t show affection in public. All we do is shake hands, and it’s not hard to replace that with an elbow tap or fist bump.

But we do like to gather in crowds to sing at religious services and yell at political protests — or sometimes it’s the other way around.

The central explanation for South Korea’s success in taming the pandemic so far is its strategy of targeted testing and aggressive contact tracing. That and the willingness of the public — including most religious believers and political protestors — to follow basic precautions. So far, as schools have been closed or partially closed and many people have spent parts of this year working from home, we’ve managed to avoid a national lockdown.

South Korea went into the crisis well-prepared. Its disease-control system had been refined after its experience with the Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2015. A key legal provision introduced at that time gave the government the right to override privacy laws, which are strong in South Korea. And that hasn’t bothered people too much, although after a mini-outbreak in gay bars, a significant number of people avoided testing out of fear of being outed.

By pure coincidence, South Korea’s disease control leadership went through a simulation based on a pandemic scenario just one month before real thing happened.

The country has a solid biotech sector, which quickly produced testing kits, and hospitals rapidly adjusted to arrange testing, including drive-thru facilities in which there is no need to get out of your car.

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.

Within days of the outbreak, people took to wearing face masks and disinfecting their hands. It was here that my foreignness came to the fore. South Koreans are used to wearing masks when they have colds or on days when the air quality is especially bad. I had never bothered to do that. But after about a month of being the only mask-less person in the street, I surrendered because I didn’t want to be the ugly foreigner and because I had swung around to thinking that it made sense: If I’m infected, I won’t infect anyone else, and vice versa. And just in case some infected person has left droplets hanging in the air and I walk into them, I’ll have a better chance of not inhaling them. I’ve noticed that I haven’t yet had either of the two colds I get every year. And with winter coming, the mask keeps me warm. I might just keep this up.

As with everywhere else, the economy of South Korea has taken a big hit. In macro terms, the gross domestic product was down 1.3% in the first quarter of 2020 and 3.2% in the second quarter. But it bounced back up 1.9% in the third quarter.

Though encouraging, these figures mask a lot of disruption on the ground. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, barber shops, beauty parlors, and many small businesses are suffering. I’ve not seen the numbers, but I’ve been told that small pediatric clinics are in trouble because children who are staying away from school and wearing face masks aren’t catching their usual number of respiratory infections.

Some companies limit the number of people who can be in the office and ask them to work from home on a rotational basis. This is already changing the culture of many companies. And schools remain only partially open, which has resulted in the parent or grandparent who stays at home becoming more involved and more aware of how good or not so good teachers are.

But as we reflect on the high death toll in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, I wonder if we in South Korea have not also benefited from a certain fatalism. It seems to me that people here are fatalistic, in contrast to the optimistic Americans who walk down the street confident that all will be well. They envisage themselves catching the virus and so are immediately motivated to do what was already familiar — put on a face mask and use hand sanitizer.

Michael Breen lives and works in South Korea and is the author of “The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation” (Macmillan, 2017).

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