South Korea’s Coronavirus Response

COVID response in South Korea vs. US

South Korea's Coronavirus ResponseThe COVID-19 crisis permeating every aspect of life these days, I figured I would write down thoughts clamoring inside my brain as it relates to South Korea’s coronavirus response compared to that of the United States. I’m now back home in Los Angeles but spent a recent couple years and some of my childhood in Seoul.

It’s incredible that Seoul has had 4 deaths while New York City has recorded over 16,000 deaths from COVID-19 and mind-boggling even after considering the clearly game-changing tactics deployed to combat the virus. Both are densely populated metropolises with 8+ million inhabitants in NYC and 9+ million in Seoul, where public transportation is the common mode of transit and people live in close quarters in homes stacked atop another. Both countries had their first reported case on the same day with diverging outcomes, to say the least.

Seoul has had 4 deaths to NYC’s 16,000+ deaths from COVID-19 as of May 22nd.

Preparedness and testing

So why has South Korea succeeded where the US failed? A key factor is that Korea was equipped to deal with an outbreak from having dealt with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) several years ago. From failures experienced during that coronavirus crisis, Korea made a number of significant changes to its governmental institutions, testing practices, and crisis communication, and transformed itself from a “super spreader” of MERS to a “super stopper” of COVID-19. Meanwhile in the US, practically none of us have dealt with something like this in our lifetimes and we fumbled our response to curb the spread of the virus as well as the accompanying infodemic, in no small part due to federal leadership.

While I was reading countless articles on testing shortages and Americans with symptoms being unable to obtain tests, South Korea was planning to test everyone in the country in preparation for a second wave. That kind of Korean efficiency isn’t surprising given the rapid clip in which nearly every aspect of modern Korean society moves, especially when compared to the languorous pace of work in American bureaucracies. As anecdotal evidence, when I went to my local immigration office in Seoul, they redirected me to first get additional paperwork from a couple of other departments including the police station across the street. I figured my day was shot and I’d have to return the next day. To my surprise, I was able to obtain all of the necessary papers and go back to the original office before it closed. In the States, I’m in the habit of blocking out the whole morning to process a single thing at the DMV.

South Korea was equipped to deal with an outbreak from having dealt with MERS several years ago.

This, I’m speculating, can also be attributed in part to the situation in which Korean government posts are highly coveted jobs awarded to some of the brightest, or at least some of the best test-takers, whereas in America, it’s not as competitive nor as appreciated.

Masks and culture

Officials Stateside made equivocal statements on wearing masks, telling people they didn’t need them only to later require everyone to wear them in public (depending on the city you reside in), creating confusion and eroding trust. And somehow, masks have become a partisan issue. Meanwhile, Koreans, whether conservative or liberal, immunocompromised or in peak health, were already in the long-held habit of wearing masks to prevent spread of illness and to protect themselves from dust and pollution. (Note that as a historically homogenous country, Korea doesn’t share the same concerns of racial profiling and violence against black Americans who wear masks—or do any number of mundane activities, like jogging or walking down the street, for that matter—and also no threat of gun violence in enforcing regulations to wear masks.)


It doesn’t help that we as Americans tend to be individualistic, sometimes leading to the faulty notion that as long as I’m not personally in danger, there’s no need for concern (see COVID-19 parties). Koreans, on the other hand, emphasize the collective: it’s embedded in big things like the language itself and in small things like the way children talk about their future and hopes in relation to supporting their parents. Wearing masks protects those around you and contributes to curbing COVID-19, which is less of a priority if you’re thinking mainly about yourself and your family.

The above may be compounded by the fact that a great number of Americans are at a higher risk for complications from the virus due to chronic conditions, which is not as significant a factor in the Korean population.

Surveillance and tracing

I doubt it’s possible to get from one place to another in Seoul without being caught on multiple CCTV cameras, which appear to be everywhere except within the walls of one’s own home. Korean cars are equipped with a black box to record video evidence in accidents and in this socially accepted atmosphere of monitoring, it’s no shock that the South Korean government has been using surveillance footage, phone data, and credit card records to trace and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a significant price to pay for public health that can set precedence for the post-pandemic future and I’m not sure how such an invasion of privacy would go over in the US.

What price are we willing to pay for public health?

It would be myopic to simply attribute the Korean acquiescence to that kind of intrusion to its supposed deference to authority figures. Ubiquitous and regular protests against authority are a defining characteristic of South Korea, especially to an onlooker from the States. Just a couple of years ago, Koreans protested, impeached, ousted, and sentenced a corrupt president to prison. The country is riddled with its own set of issues like the astonishing and visible wealth gap, blatant discrimination against LGBTQ people, and rampant gender inequality that manifests in both personal and private lives, but South Korea’s coronavirus response has undeniably revealed the nation as a leader when it comes to managing the outbreak.

Widening cracks in the American system

Another element that makes the coronavirus disastrous in a uniquely American way is the issue of healthcare. I felt lucky to have sorted through minor health issues while living in Korea and on their affordable national health insurance, which was only around $100/month for a non-citizen like me—and my aunt said even that was too high. That allowed me to get what counted as surgery with multiple medical professionals poring over me for a negligible co-pay. If I had to undergo that in the States, I may still be in debt right now paying off what would have cost thousands, based on surprise healthcare bills in the past. Even after the pandemic subsides in the coming years, many who make it out of hospitalization will be grappling with medical debt.

And with unemployment at the highest level since the Great Depression, with small businesses ordered to close without being provided a financial lifeline (especially if they are owned by black or brown people), many of us are struggling to make rent, which has inconveniently reached egregious rates in some of our urban hubs. Some have resorted to flouting the rules and spreading the virus. Incidentally, Koreans had decades ago established jeonse, a system of low rent with a large lump-sum deposit, making one less thing to worry about in the midst of a global pandemic (as long as you had the deposit money to put down in the first place). Many Americans worried about the virus have the additional concern of staying housed in a safe place.

Many Americans worried about the virus are burdened with additional concerns of staying housed and having food and access to healthcare.

The crisis has exposed other cracks in the American system like food insecurity with the closing of schools (i.e., free meal distribution centers for children). We are in free fall with no safety net—not unless you have personal, family connections to keep you afloat—in a pandemic that will haunt for us years. I hope that we will learn our lesson from this outbreak as South Korea did from their past and while it won’t happen automatically, that we’ll rebuild in a sustainable manner to give all Americans access to a living wage and a chance to thrive.


Photo by Ori Song by Zeyan Liu

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