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What South Korea teaches us through coronavirus

By Louis Park and Soojeong Kim

On March 22nd, the number of cases by coronavirus in New York alone surpassed South Korea. The single state had 15,168 cases as reported by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, while South Korea had 8,897 cases even when testing significantly more.

The COVID-19 epidemic has left devastating effects in countries throughout the world. Coronavirus has been rapidly spread from person to person, and in a matter of months, has now been able to reach approximately six hundred thousand total cases worldwide. Along with high infectious rates, global panic and action has rapidly escalated

Many countries, especially in Asia, have been able to effectively manage the spread of the virus and public trepidation. Countries such as South Korea are able to create organized and orderly preventative measures. In South Korea, phone apps that utilize public government info and GPS data give users warnings of diagnosed patients’ visited locations.


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Drive-through test for COVID-19 in South Korea on 28 February 2020. PHOTO CREDIT: Government of South Korea

In addition, South Korean drive-through clinics are able to easily test patients for coronavirus in less than 10 minutes for free. These drive-through clinics and new pop-up facilities parked in front of infected buildings make up 633 nationwide testing sites that can test up to 20,000 people a day; samples are analyzed in 6 hours by 1,200 medical professionals.


The number of new cases in South Korea peaked at 909 cases on February 29th, halving in 5 days, halving again in another 4 days, and halving once more in just a single day. The country’s success in flattening the curve with a decline in new coronavirus cases can be attributed to the extensive tracing of patients, and immediate intervention. Just a week after the country’s first diagnosed case in January, the government contacted medical companies in order to develop mass production to make kits for the virus. 

Chart of South Korea’s daily new coronavirus cases. PHOTO CREDIT: Niall McCarthy

The successful containment of the virus in South Korea differs greatly to actions being taken by other countries throughout the world, such as Italy and the U.S. In Italy, it only took 13 days for the number of deaths in the country to jump from 600 to more than 3,400. Kelsey Piper and Christina Animashaun write on Vox that “Italy has been devastated by the virus because the action it took was just a little too moderate, a little too restrained, and a little too slow.’

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, downplayed the coronavirus for weeks. On January 22nd, Trump stated in a television interview with CNBC’s Joe Kernen, “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” He continues to ignore the problem, such as on February 28th when he says at the White House, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” He also calls the coronavirus Democartic Party’s “new hoax.” 

However, suddenly in mid-march, Trump insisted that he knew very well about the situation the entire time. “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” he claimed. Now, on March 24th, Trump used his gut feeling to end social distancing in a few weeks around Easter, despite experts warning that efforts would take months. 

The action being taken in the United States is way too slow and will not stand a chance compared to South Korea. While both countries detected their first case on the same day, both countries have tested a total of around 300,000 people. This is every 1-in-170 people for South Korea, but six times less per capita at only every 1-in-1090 people in the United States. 

During this crisis, only some states and counties of the US have enforced stay at home and shelter in place orders. Many of these orders started on March 24th, when total reported cases already exceeded 54,800 cases, with at least 780 deaths.

“… the South Korea model is one that we could follow,” Larry Brilliant, who helped eradicate smallbox, states in a WIRED interview. “Unfortunately, it requires doing the proportionate number of tests that they did—they did well over a quarter of a million tests. In fact, by the time South Korea had done 200,000 tests, we had probably done less than 1,000.” 

“Detecting patients at an early stage is very important,” Neunghoo Park, health minister of South Korea’s, tells CNN. “Slow federal action on this matter has impeded our ability to beat back this epidemic,” New York City’s deputy mayor for health Raul Perea-Henze writes.

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