What Duterte can learn from South Korea
In perhaps the most comprehensive survey of its kind thus far, the Hong-Kong-based Deep Knowledge Ventures ranked 150 nations’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic based on four key elements: “quarantine efficiency,” including the timely and effective imposition of travel restrictions; “monitoring and detection,” including mass testing and contact tracing quality; “emergency treatment readiness,” focusing on the quality of health care institutions; and overall “government management efficiency.”South Korea, which relied on mass testing without locking down major cities, topped the list among Asia-Pacific nations, ranking among the best in the world alongside Germany and Israel. In fact, eight countries in the top 10 are from the Asia-Pacific region. China’s ranking, meanwhile, raised eyebrows, with Dmitry Kaminskiy, the group’s founder, admitting that the communist regime’s numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
What about the Philippines, which already has among the biggest outbreaks in the Southeast Asian region, among the highest fatality rates in frontliners, and among the lowest recovery rates?
The survey placed the Philippines at the absolute bottom of Asia-Pacific countries, alongside Indonesia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Globally, the Philippines ranked among the top 10 least safe nations, joining the likes of Italy, Spain, United States, United Kingdom, Iran, Ecuador, and Romania.
In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Kaminskiy lamented the “inefficiency of government management” in places such as the Philippines, where some top officials are busy passing the blame to supposedly “pasaway” (miscreant) citizens.
The success of poorer countries such as Vietnam as well as democratic Taiwan shows that leadership and management skills matter more than overall levels of development or type of regimes. South Korea, however, offers great lessons for the Philippines, since its success was far from straightforward.
Not long ago, South Korea was the site of one of the world’s worst outbreaks, and faced travel bans across the world. As recently as Feb. 28, more than 1.3 million citizens called for the impeachment of President Moon Jae-in, who failed to prevent the outbreak through effective travel restrictions and monitoring mechanisms. By March 4, the New Yorker magazine published an article titled “How South Korea lost control of its coronavirus outbreak.”
President Moon, who came to power based on a promise of historic peace on the Korean Peninsula and economic justice amid rising inequality, faced the greatest crisis of his career. Instead of blaming the South Korean people for its failures, however, the government responded with decisive measures, including unprecedented drive-through mass testing facilities, specialized software and drones-based contacting tracing and monitoring mechanisms, and an all-out public information campaign.
When faced with existential crisis, Korea responded with participatory democracy. Within weeks, the government turned the tide, transforming a supposed failure into a global model of success. And last week, the ruling party scored a major electoral victory as grateful citizens, who braved the plague scare to cast their votes, rewarded Moon for his remarkable exercise of leadership.
What the Korean story shows is that there is always a “second chance” to make up for earlier mistakes. It also shows that even arguably the world’s most demanding citizens are willing to reward corrections built on humility, decisive leadership, and effective management.
The Philippines has a lot to learn from South Korea, not only in terms of the response to the pandemic. Many forget that up until the 1950s, South Korea was significantly poorer than the Philippines. It was not until the 1970s when the country, then under Gen. Park Chung-hee, began to build global industries by turning former oligarchs into national champions. By the late 1980s, South Korea would transition to democracy, right after our Edsa revolution.
For the next three decades, South Korea managed to build one of the freest and most innovative nations on earth. Now, former human rights lawyers and activists are at the helm of power. Thanks to remarkable public activism and the strength of the country’s protest movements, a number of former presidents have been ousted and/or slapped jail time for corruption and abuse of power.
South Korea is a nation that values accountability, transparency, and competence. Large-scale protests go hand in hand with cutting-edge technology. Maybe instead of looking to China, President Duterte can learn a thing or two from the former human rights lawyer presiding over South Korea.
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