This past spring, after returning to Seoul from a visit to New York, I’d sit with friends in restaurants and parks discussing reports from the United States about mask fury and toilet paper hoarding and fights over hand sanitizer. Although Korea was “on pause,” we never locked down like US cities. After the crisis began in Daegu, with a member of a secretive Christian church who was a “super spreader,” the government response here and the public’s trust in that response made the difference.
Besides long-established mask wearing, other aspects of Korean culture and history helped contain Covid-19. The 2015 MERS outbreak had put disaster plans in place, and also activated a sense of solidarity among Koreans. As during the 1997 IMF crisis, when faced with existential threats, Koreans shift from competitiveness to a “together we can overcome” approach. Furthermore, as the national and local governments’ policies proved effective, public trust in the official response soared. In April elections, the incumbent party won by a landslide.
In May, Korea fell out of the top 10 countries worst hit by the virus. By the end of July, we were ranked number 74, with six deaths per million. In contrast, the United States was number one, with 465 deaths per million. While the US had about 70,000 new cases per day, here we’d get panicky if 60 arose. By August, US fatalities exceeded 170,000; in Korea the dead number just over 300. Even with the great difference in population, there’s no comparison.
South Korea, historically in a highly paternalistic relationship with the United States, is not looking to the US to show the way anymore. In some scenarios, like the run-up to the November elections, the US should take cues from the ROK. Here, elections were held with an extended early voting period to curtail waiting and crowding. At polling stations, floor markings made social distancing easy, and both temperature monitoring and disposable gloves were provided. As a Korean American, I know that differences in cultural norms and values would make some of the other ways Koreans have stemmed the pandemic much harder to transfer to the US.
In addition to the two-week pause, involving intense social distancing, the government has tackled the pandemic aggressively with public education campaigns and extensive contact tracing. Text messages inform people about the routes newly diagnosed patients took for several days leading up to diagnosis. Anyone who had been in the same places as a confirmed patient can get tested for free. Testing centers have been set up across the country. True to the cliché of South Korea’s “hurry-up” culture, results within 24 hours by text message are the only acceptable standard.
People who test positive, or who have been in close contact with someone positive, are quarantined at home with provisions delivered to their door by the government: rice, ramen, Spam, masks, garbage bags for biohazard, water, vegetables, disinfectant, toilet paper. Those under quarantine are also assigned a case worker who checks in on them several times a day to monitor their mental health during isolation. This occurs regardless of the patient’s immigration or citizenship status. The government understands that the virus also disregards these legal distinctions. Such measures help residents who are threatened by disease feel that they haven’t been abandoned, plus it’s in everyone’s interest to contain the virus, even if it means extensive contact tracing.
Contact tracing uses smartphone GPS, security cameras, credit and bank card purchases, and transit card usage. (When a Covid cluster in a foreigner- and gay-friendly neighborhood was sensationalized by a right-wing Christian media outlet, some identifying information was not sent out anymore, like people’s age and citizenship, which could stigmatize foreigners.) Recently, people have been compelled to scan QR codes with their phones, thus sharing their contact information (name, phone number, address) when they enter an establishment that has been known to be the source of outbreak clusters like nightclubs, hostess bars, karaoke rooms, and churches.
Why do people tolerate such surveillance? In so densely populated a country, it’s impossible to do much without someone watching you, even more so in the Seoul metro area, where half of the country’s population lives. South Korea is the most cashless country in the world, and we aren’t going to start using cash again anytime soon. Some purchases are even done through contactless transactions using our phones, whose user agreements allow collection of data. Virtually everyone has a smartphone, and Koreans love convenience. The only thing Koreans love more is drinking and socializing with coworkers and friends, so the high-tech tracing is accepted. Finally, there is the necessary relationship between effective, trustworthy leadership and public commitment to the idea of a shared fight and a shared fate.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.