Tina J. Park is a co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, based at the University of Toronto. She is also one of Canada’s leading experts on South and North Korea and Canadian-Korean relations and served as a fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome in 2019.
As Canadians grapple with the continuing fallout from COVID-19, the painful experience of Italy proves that even a total lockdown is no solution to fighting the coronavirus. And if we want the economy to emerge as healthy as possible, we must look to South Korea, which managed to successfully flatten the curve of new infections with no travel bans, lockdowns or any draconian measures that might damage the domestic economy.
There are six key lessons that Canada can learn from South Korea’s handling of COVID-19.
Rapid, widespread testing is critical to stopping the spread of the virus. So far, more than 350,000 people in South Korea have been tested for COVID-19 – about 25,000 a day, the highest per-capita rate in the world. There is a clear correlation between aggressive testing and low mortality rates. South Korea has so far managed to keep its death toll at 158, with about 9,000 active cases and more than 4,800 patients released after a full recovery. This stands in sharp contrast to Italy, where more than 60 million people have been in lockdown since early March and where the death toll has surpassed 10,000. Unless Canada implements a coherent system for widespread testing, we risk further community-based transmission.
Public-private partnership is essential for easy, affordable and safe access to testing centres. In South Korea, private companies quickly developed and disseminated standardized testing kits for COVID-19; these are now being exported. The country also quickly set up drive-through and “phone booth” testing centres to minimize the risk of infection on site. These tests only take about 10 minutes, have an accuracy rate of 99 per cent and are largely free of charge, with the results sent to mobile phones in about five to six hours. Such efficiency is possible because 95 private and public labs are operating 24/7 with rotating shifts of technicians and health-care professionals across the country. Government alone cannot tackle all the demands and challenges arising from the coronavirus. Canadian firms should actively reach out to those in South Korea and learn from them.
Transparency in communication is critical to accurately sharing information. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers regular and accurate updates on the latest COVID-19 cases, including a daily news briefing and three data updates a day. South Korea also set up a special hotline, either for queries related to COVID-19 or for psychological support for anyone suffering from stress. In times of crisis, fake news and scams are bound to challenge the public’s confidence in officials and stir up cynicism and paranoia. A centralized hub for public information, such as South Korea’s, and the use of mobile technology to notify citizens could be adopted by Canada to boost transparency.
Technology and innovation are keys to fighting the spread of COVID-19, with tools such as coronavirus mapping apps to trace affected areas and issue community alerts. In South Korea, satellite technology, credit card histories and mobile phone records were used to trace the movement of confirmed patients. This data was then used to identify other suspected patients and to alert citizens, through mobile apps and texts, about areas to avoid until a full disinfecting process had been conducted. While intrusive, these measures were critical in flattening the curve and saving lives.
A collective public response, such as wearing face masks and practising good personal hygiene, self-isolation and social distancing, is as important as any good policy measures. South Korea, famous for its penchant for efficiency, managed to galvanize the public’s support for social distancing and didn’t see panic buying.
Moving forward, long-term investment in health-care infrastructure is necessary to provide access to acute treatment facilities. By taking stock of lessons learned from the MERS outbreak in 2015, South Korea invested heavily in medical equipment and specialized-care facilities, especially for older populations. Much of the infrastructure needed for COVID-19 patients cannot be built overnight – Canada needs to invest now to provide sufficient care for its aging population.
The geographical realities of Canada and South Korea are not the same, but COVID-19 knows no boundaries, and saving human lives is a collective responsibility. If a country of 52 million people with a population density about 100 times that of Canada’s – and so close to China – can flatten its curve, then Canada can too.
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