How the Republic of Korea flattened the COVID-19 curve: openness, transparency and democracy

The Republic of Korea discovered its first COVID-19 case on 20 January 2020. The Korean Centres for Disease Control immediately organized a meeting with bio-medicine companies to provide the genetic map of the coronavirus released by the WHO, and to ask them to develop test kits. After two weeks, the test kits were developed and approved for use after one week. On 20 February 2020, the number of cases began to explode in and around the City of Daegu to nearly 9000 cases in less than a month, making the Republic of Korea one of the most dangerous places in the world. The size and the speed of the outbreak seemed to be uncontrollable.

The government, however, continued to 1) rigorously trace the prospective cases, 2) test for free, and 3) treat for free, everyone regardless of nationality. Elderly or critical patients were hospitalized in intensive care units, and patients with less severe symptoms were housed in non-medical facilities, residential treatment facilities to avoid the hospital bed shortage.

The government has also implemented robust measures to coordinate closely with all cities the curbing of the spread of the virus, including the installation of the famous drive-through and walk-through testing centers, a source of inspiration for other countries.

Despite concerns about the infringement of citizens’ rights regarding the development of the GPS-tracking application to monitor the movement of people, patients and infected individuals have not been stigmatized, and their personal information has not been made public. No blockades were introduced and the freedom of movement of South Koreans has not been curtailed. The purpose of the travel charts was to expose the movement of the virus, not its host. The Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act and the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) stipulate that all personal information should be destroyed 14 days after the incubation period. The South Korean model is significant since it shows the world that a transparent democratic approach, including public participation and thorough management of the cases, is successful in comparison to stricter measures.

This policy also cascaded down to the local levels. The Gwangju City Government worked closely with the national government in ensuring that the city conducts one-on-one monitoring of individuals under quarantine.

Family support was high on the agenda of the city government: care services were provided for children with working parents and financial support was given to low-income families. In addition, low-income patients and prospective patients in quarantine received between US$ 400 and US$ 1300 per month.

Solidarity, a strong trait among Gwangju inhabitants, has become all the more evident in this time of crisis. While the neighboring City of Daegu was combatting the coronavirus outbreak, the City of Gwangju sent a group of its medical staff and local fire-fighters to help South Korea’s epicentre of the pandemic. In another show of solidarity, Gwangju took in COVID-19 patients from Daegu for treatment in their hospitals.