While South Korea has suffered from several waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, its public health system has been able to combat outbreaks effectively, limiting their spread and duration. In part, this was managed through restrictions on international travel, school closures, targeted suspensions of public gatherings, and closures of public entertainment venues.
The primary focus of the South Korean approach, however, has been a system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantine supported by mobile technology and data analytics. The efficacy of its approach to COVID-19 suppression has been enabled by effective communications with the public and widespread public compliance with masking, physical distancing, and hygiene recommendations. Importantly, South Korea has managed the pandemic without having to implement any economy-wide closures or stay-at-home orders, helping families and businesses weather the economic costs associated with the pandemic.
Given its geographic proximity to China, and significant trade and tourism between the two countries, South Korea was vulnerable to the early spread of the novel coronavirus. The country identified its first imported case on January 20, 2020, with cases escalating rapidly over early- to mid-February when a large cluster was identified among members of a religious group in Daegu. After identifying this cluster, health authorities were able to bring cases down rapidly, from a peak of 851 new cases on March 3. Between mid-March and mid-August, the country kept new cases below 100 per day. While a second wave did emerge in August, health authorities were able to quickly bring cases down through increased testing and contact tracing.
In December, as an exhausted public began easing physical distancing practices during winter holidays, South Korea saw a third wave emerge, with daily cases reaching numbers not seen during the first and second waves. While policy makers considered implementing stay-at-home orders during this third wave, they were able to bring cases down through testing, contact tracing and quarantine coupled with targeted closures of entertainment facilities and religious services and enforced mask mandates. Still, the third wave proved more difficult to control for South Korean authorities, and the number of new cases per day remains at nearly 600. Overall, by May 1, 2021, South Korea had confirmed 123,240 cases with 1,833 deaths. While significant, these numbers are low on an internationally comparable per capita basis.
Throughout the pandemic, the relative success of South Korea’s approach to combatting the virus has depended on the availability of an effective test for the virus and the efficacy of contact tracing. Towards this end, South Korean health authorities met early with private laboratories, urging them to develop tests and offering rapid regulatory approvals. This effort resulted in the delivery of four effective tests by the end of February 2020. Setting up walk-through and drive-through clinics, authorities were then able to rapidly escalate public testing. Also, South Korea deployed advanced data analytics to support contact tracing, with authorities able to access a wide variety of personal data on infected individuals, including medical records, banking information, and mobile phone location data, as well as closed-circuit television. This allowed them to accurately and rapidly track individuals who had come into contact with infected individuals.
South Korea’s approach also depended on public buy-in and trust, which authorities were able to achieve, for the most part, through transparency and openness. In this regard, authorities learned from their experience with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. With MERS, they had withheld information to avoid creating panic among the public, but the resulting information vacuum was filled by rumor and misinformation. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korean authorities have provided the public with updated data on the virus and clear guidelines on how to avoid infection. They have used a variety of media and twice-daily press briefings to ensure public awareness of the threat posed by the virus and actions being taken to mitigate this threat.
In terms of its economic response, South Korea’s policy has aligned with that of most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, with government seeking various fiscal and macro-financial means of alleviating pressures on businesses and families. The strength of South Korea’s approach has been the government’s ability to target spending towards industries that were particularly hard-hit, as well as to ensure that government finances stimulated consumer spending and broader economic activity. A key example is the design of emergency cash transfer payments: rather than depending on bank transfers or checks, the government offered citizens pre-paid cards or credit card deposits that they had to spend by the end of August 2020, ensuring that citizens spent the money rather than saving it.
With a longer-term focus on rebuilding the economy, South Korea has developed a plan called the Korean New Deal. South Korean officials are seeking to use the Korean New Deal to stimulate investments in advanced technology, upskilling Korean workers, and positioning the country to emerge from the pandemic has a leading player in the data economy and the green economy, rather than using government funding strictly to rebuild the economy. While the Korean New Deal represents an important case of government seeking opportunity in the context of the crisis, evidence of the economic impact of the plan is yet to emerge.
Finally, the South Korean government has garnered criticism for its delayed rollout of COVID-19 vaccination efforts, having started vaccination of frontline health workers and long-term care residents only on February 28, 2021. In part, this delay has been the result of South Korea’s laudable commitment to (and dependence on) the international COVAX effort, as well as an interest among South Korean health officials to observe how rollouts proceeded in other countries. At the same time, since summer 2020, officials have sought to negotiate local production deals between international vaccine manufacturers and South Korean pharmaceutical companies rather than reserving imported doses as other developed countries have done. Recent develops in terms of procurement deals and local manufacturing deals promise an acceleration in South Korea’s efforts to reach herd immunity by the end of 2021.
This case was drafted by Paul Dyer for the Brookings Doha Center. The author appreciates William Maurer, Jr. and Cliff Tan for their perspectives in reviewing various versions of this document.