How is South Korea managing the pandemic?

Everyone on the interwebs is singing the praises of South Korea for beating COVID19 without having to endure a lockdown. Is that really true? I work with someone who lives in Incheon in South Korea, Dakota McCarty, so I thought I’d get the inside scoop from him. This is straight from the horse’s mouth and not through someone’s uncle’s brother’s, wife’s sister’s cousin’s hairdresser.

It’s not completely true to say South Korea hasn’t been in lockdown. Schools and universities are all closed there since early March and with no plans to physically reopen. All learning is now 100% online. So while you can say the schools opened on 6th April, no one is physically going to school – they’re all learning online from their homes.

Bars and restaurants have been open but just yesterday it was announced that these are to close in Seoul. They remain open in the rest of the country but to gain entry you must have your temperature taken. If it’s high they call 119 and someone comes and takes you to a testing facility. You must also wear a face mask at all times and use hand sanitiser before entering any place of business. All religious gatherings have been banned. Apparently, such places were administering “cures” in church and inadvertently spreading the disease. They are also selectively closing places of business when it’s found that someone who tests positive has previously visited there.

When someone tests positive the government has the power to check CCTV, phone records, bank records, and geo-location records to get a good picture of where they’ve been and who they’ve met. They’re using information from personal credit cards to track movements.  There’s even an online map that shows where the positive cases are down to their street address. Would people in Europe accept this level of surveillance?

Wearing a face mask in public is mandatory for everyone. Each person is allowed to buy two masks per week with days of purchase allocated based on their date of birth. They only cost 99p thanks to government subsidies.

South Korea hasn’t closed its borders but all new arrivals must go into quarantine either at their own home or at their own cost in a government facility. If people in home quarantine flout the rules they face prison and fines of more than £6,500. They’re also trialing a quarantine wristband to monitor people in quarantine and most people seem to support this.

I think the message here is that no, South Korea has not beaten COVID19 without a lockdown. They are in lockdown too but their cases are low because of a high level of testing along with government surveillance of the population followed by steep fines and jail time for disobedience. I suspect also that culturally the people are more compliant than people in Europe although I have no evidence to support this. They’ve also adapted much better to the changing situation with schools and universities going 100% online to reduce the disruption as much as possible. By contrast, here in the UK there’s been little effort put into moving schools to an online delivery model. People are also still asking when they’ll open again as though after two weeks of closure things will return to normal. That’s simply not going to happen.

South Korea has also been doing extensive testing, something the UK has had great difficulty ramping up. But it’s clear that testing alone is not a golden ticket. The testing has been alongside all these other measures, including school and university closures, government surveillance and tracking, hefty fines and prison terms, subsidised face masks for the entire population, temperature checking, and now the closure of bars and restaurants in some places. Would this work in the UK? Would people here give the Government unfettered access to their bank statements, phone records, and other location-based tracking data for the greater good? I would, if it meant avoiding another Great Depression. But don’t expect it to be a free pass back to normality.