As much as I would love to find a different topic to write about, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the only relevant topic that has been updating itself for the past few weeks. The University of Michigan encouraged all students to return to their permanent residence, so I left Ann Arbor to fly back to South Korea last Saturday. When I finally stepped out of the airplane full of people sharing the same objective of reaching their homes after about 14 hours of travel, I could see that my home country was dealing with the whole pandemic situation in a radically different manner.
It usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes to get through the passport control and pick up your luggage at the Incheon International Airport. However, this time it took me an hour and a half. Several teams of airport staff members and public health workers lined up the passengers where they checked if all incoming passengers had downloaded a self-diagnosis tracking application on their phones. I was given more than enough information and explanation regarding the application and the need for us to download it to keep track of our health. Then, when I finally reached the actual checkpoint, a public health official checked my temperature with a simple electronic thermometer. I recorded 98.6 degrees and was given a piece of paper that read “quarantine certificate.” I was then asked to fill out brief paperwork that asked for my address and phone number. When I asked the officer collecting the paperwork what this was for, he kindly answered that the Korean government newly mandated all its returning citizens to practice self-quarantine for 14 days and those pieces of information were needed for the local government of my residence to check on my status. Out of curiosity, I then asked if there would be legal repercussions if I broke the self-quarantine and the answer was, as expected, yes. Noncompliance to the self-quarantine order is punishable by up to a year of imprisonment or a fine up to 10,000,000 won, which is equivalent to almost $10,000.
South Korea had two unique strategies dealing with COVID-19 that the United States did not. The first was testing. Korea was much quicker to react to the global health crisis when compared to many other countries, partly because of its past experience with Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. As soon as the first confirmed COVID-19 case from China was announced, Korean companies jumped in on developing test kits. Beginning in late February, soon after the Lunar New Year holidays, Korea started to develop the capability of testing about 20,000 people a day and now has about 10,000 tests run per one million people, which is the highest confirmed data among all affected countries.
The second strategy was heightened, yet relatively well-accepted, surveillance on citizens. This does not mean that the Korean government wiretaps phone calls or collects all private information to track certain individuals down. Rather, the government effectively utilized the recent trend of cashless transactions and spiked use of smartphones to track people who came in contact with a confirmed patient. Korea has the highest proportion of cashless transactions and one of the highest phone ownership rates in the world. In addition, the government was able to successfully trace those in mandatory 14-day self-quarantine; the application I was told to download upon arrival was not only for self-diagnosis reporting but also for location tracking to notify the designated local government official if I leave my self-quarantine spot. The designated local government official calls me every morning to check if I am still in my self-quarantine spot and asks if I am showing any symptoms. Korean citizens, including myself, do not have much problem with being possibly traced or receiving phone calls from the local government every morning. Except for some outrageous cases of noncompliance to the self-quarantine order, including a South Korean student traveling to Jeju Island with her mother a day after arriving in Korea from the U.S., most citizens are taking social distancing fairly seriously.
I am certainly not an expert in biomedical industries of either country but I doubt the U.S. lacks the technology or capital to develop testing kits. One of the crucial differences between Korea and the U.S. was the government’s attitude. President Trump dismissed the potential severity of the virus when it first emerged as a global health threat while consistently labeling it the “Chinese Virus.” President Trump had also poorly reorganized the National Security Council (NSC) so that it was not fit to react to pandemics like COVID-19. The Obama administration had done the same but restored the original NSC structure after going through the Ebola crisis in 2014. In addition, the Trump administration was recently found to have told the federal agency to classify COVID-19 deliberations, keeping crucial information like the scope of infection and quarantine restrictions from the public. While Korea learned from MERS in 2015, it seems as if the U.S. did not learn much from Ebola in 2014.
I am not saying the U.S. should implement such a strict enforcement on self-quarantine and social distancing without much consideration. Americans could certainly react differently than Koreans if they were legally obligated to not leave their homes and local government agents kept track of them constantly. However, given the recent trend of ever-increasing cases, some form of mandatory social distancing does not sound too egregious. The disease is not successfully being contained, especially in Michigan where the cases only continue to rise. Maybe the society as a whole really should consider a hard-hitting method like that of Korea to possibly bring the curve down.
Min Soo Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.