No Free Lunch

Winning without lockdown

South Korea took rapid, intrusive measures against COVID-19 and they worked,” bannered British newspaper The Guardian last March 20.

In late February, South Korea was tagged the new epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic, with the number of daily new cases doubling in less than two days at a time when China’s numbers had already been easing, and lockdowns there being relaxed. Yet within three weeks, the Koreans had the virus convincingly under control. The Ministry of Economy and Finance (MOEF), in a paper describing the Korean COVID-19 approach, declared: “So far, Korea is the only country with a population of over 50 million that has slowed the spread of the virus, and flattened the curve of new infections without shutting down the country nor the city at the epicenter of the outbreak…”


A viral video of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha’s interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, where she explained her country’s “secret,” has won numerous admirers for her government’s handling of the pandemic (and for herself as well). “The key to our success,” she declared, “has been absolute transparency with the public—sharing every detail of how this virus is evolving, how it is spreading and what the government is doing about it, warts and all.” She also described their system as “highly wired,” alluding to their full use of information and communication technology for monitoring, contact tracing, and containment of the illness.

The MOEF paper outlines the health and quarantine measures, along with the economic and financial measures that the Korean government has put in place. On the former, the strategy sums up in 3 Ts: testing, tracing, and treating the illness. While these three figure in everyone else’s approach to the pandemic, the critical difference lies in how they’ve done each. On testing, they rapidly built the capacity to undertake massive testing by mobilizing their scientific community and pharmaceutical industry as soon as China released genetic information on the virus. “On February 4, the South Korean government granted a fast-track approval for a company’s coronavirus test and began shipping the kits. A second company was approved a week later, and two more soon followed. The Korean government has continued to increase the number of testing institutions and test kit manufacturers, thereby successfully raising the maximum daily testing capacity from 3,000 (February 7) to 18,000 (March 16).”


On tracing, the Korean government undertook “vigorous measures to track and test those who had been in contact with confirmed patients, utilizing credit card transactions, CCTV recordings and GPS data on mobile phones when necessary. Relevant anonymized information is disclosed to the public so that those who may have crossed paths with confirmed patients may get themselves tested.” An innovative “safety protection app” links the close contacts under self-quarantine to an assigned government health care staff, who monitors their symptoms twice a day, and is alerted when self-quarantine orders are broken, via tracking of the phone’s location. In short, Korea used information and communication technology to the hilt in their fight against the coronavirus.

On treatment, patients are classified based on severity by patient management teams organized at the province level. Moderate, severe, and extremely severe patients are immediately hospitalized for treatment at government or government-designated institutions. For those with mild symptoms, city and provincial governments set up “living and treatment support centers” in government-run facilities or lodgings to house them. Patients are monitored at least twice a day, and transferred to health care institutions if symptoms aggravate, or discharged when symptoms are mitigated.

My son’s Korean girlfriend in Seoul told him the other day that she and her parents had just gone to the movies—as if life goes on undisrupted. South Korea’s active COVID-19 cases have fallen continuously since mid-March. For most of the rest of the world, they continue to rise. Perhaps their 3T strategy for winning without lockdown ought to be required reading for everyone else.

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