Comparing COVID-19 Responses Adopted by Korea and China

Passengers riding a crowded subway in Shanghai in mid-January wear masks to protect themselves from the rapidly spreading COVID-19.

As COVID-19 continues to spread at an alarming rate across much of Europe and North America, it may seem only a matter of time before the virus completely overwhelms health systems. In this chaotic time, it is worth taking a look back at China and Korea for guidance—both to see how they dealt with the coronavirus and to see where they could have improved. Although the Chinese province of Hubei was the initial epicenter of the outbreak, it bears mentioning that only 14,000 cases outside of the province were ever detected; by contrast, the US had seen more than 533,000 cases by April 12. Similarly, though Korean medical workers identified more than 900 victims in a single day at the end of February, infection rates quickly fell off within the ensuing weeks. So how, despite having had exposure to the virus for so much longer, have the two countries been able to minimize their infection rates?

Amongst the countries who have been affected by COVID-19, Korea stands out in particular for its lack of lockdowns. Even at the peak of the epidemic, no travel bans were enforced inside the country. Rather, it prioritized testing potential citizens at risk of contracting the coronavirus. According to its national reports, by March 19 South Korea had tested roughly 5000 citizens out of every million; by contrast, American had only tested 100 citizens per million. This allowed the medical system to preemptively quarantine those who had come into contact with coronavirus victims, rather than enforcing city-wide lockdowns that citizens might be less likely to obey. This was certainly reflected in the demographic of its patients. Compared with Italy, who saw a mere 3.7% of patients fall into the 20-29 age range, nearly 30% of Korean coronavirus victims were aged 20-29. Since younger people with COVID-19 typically do not exhibit the same serious symptoms that older victims do, this points to South Korea’s success with testing. In identifying younger asymptomatic carriers of the virus, Korea was able to minimize the virus’ transmission to more vulnerable groups such as the elderly.

This is not to say, of course, that complete lockdowns are ineffective. On the contrary, they have been extremely successful in China, whose health system was initially overwhelmed by COVID-19. Perhaps because officials neglected to report on the virus until an outbreak occurred, local hospitals in Hubei were overrun with patients and medical staff were unable to respond to every potential case. As such, the central government decided to implement a complete quarantine on the cities around the epicenter of the outbreak. As the pandemic continued to spread, citizens around the country were ordered to stay indoors. Thanks to the prevalence of food delivery in China, those who found themselves stuck within the homes were able to order everything from takeout to cooking supplies at the click of a button. This minimized person-to-person contact throughout the nation and allowed medical staff to focus on treating existing patients rather than attempt to persuade civilians to stay indoors.

China and Korea serve as excellent examples for countries currently ravaged by COVID-19 to follow. Although China’s surveillance-heavy approach was more authoritarian and forceful than that of Korea, quarantine proved an effective substitute for the lack of testing. Now that the initial period has passed and the number of cases continue to increase at an exponential amount, the time for advance testing and contact-tracing may have already passed. Should countries like the US and Spain hope to contain COVID-19, they may have to resort to the same measures they branded as “draconian” just a few weeks prior.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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