An Inside Look at South Korea’s Covid-19 Warning System

People shop in the Mangwon district on March 12, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Woohae Cho/Stringer/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, a colleague came into my office and announced, “Damn, it looks like things are starting to get bad again.” He turned his phone toward me. It was opened to Worldometer’s Covid-19 tracking page. I scrolled down to select the country we live in: South Korea. “How many days has it been going up?” I asked. “It was 303 then 343 and 363 cases today. They’ve just increased the alert level to 1.5.”

That night, I stopped at the grocery store on the way home to pick up some extra food. If cases keep rising, I know restaurants will likely start reverting to takeout orders only and closing earlier. My weekend appeared likely to be an isolated one.

At home, I turned on the news in America. I listened to an interview with a crying nurse. She was crying because the number of cases in America had risen exponentially, and, on her drive home after spending her day watching people die from the virus, she passed bar after bar packed with maskless people. She was talking about how helpless she felt, desperate for people to understand the severity and horror she was experiencing every day.

When I Skype with my family back home in Massachusetts, I am amazed by the stories they share. The U.S. appears as an alternate reality. My brothers are lucky enough to have work that allowed them to go fully remote. One of my brothers has a baby on the way, and he and his wife are frightened to even leave the house. My grandparents shop for groceries in hazmat suits. My mom is concerned about family members who are convinced Covid-19 is a conspiracy designed to steal the election. My parents want to celebrate the holidays with family but can’t trust that all of the members of their “pod” are listening to and taking recommended precautions.

Masks are not just encouraged in Korea. If I am out and about without my mask, I receive an $85 fine. No ifs, ands, or buts.

My father tells me a story of how he was in the grocery store the other day and saw a man walking around without a mask. “He looked at everyone he passed as though he was waiting for someone to say something. It was so wild. He was just itching for a fight. I can’t understand some people.” Similarly, I listened to an interview recently with Patty Schachtner, a senator from Wisconsin who’d had a person at a grocery store tell her to “take that fuckin’ thing off” in reference to her mask. Meanwhile, she is busy trying to prepare for the worst-case scenarios in the rural corners of her state by renting freezer trucks for when the body count overwhelms the morgues.

Masks are not just encouraged in Korea. If I am out and about without my mask, I receive an $85 fine. No ifs, ands, or buts. This also happens indoors. Unless I am eating or drinking in a restaurant, the mask stays on, or you guessed it: a fine comes my way. South Korea has made an art of its Covid-19 protocols with a series of five alert levels. Each one goes into effect based on how many cases occur in a certain area. The alert system provides a baseline that tells us “when X happens, Y is likely to happen.” It is a straightforward approach that means I am not blindsided by regulations. Things are broken down and explained.

To understand it a little better, I recently sat down with two charts released by the Korean government — the first by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security and the second by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The first one gives a basic outline of what sets each alert level in motion. The second provides more exact details of what restrictions will be implemented by separating the ramifications of each alert level into seven categories: mask-wearing, social gatherings, sporting events, public transportation, schools, religious services, and workplace. By combining these two charts, with the help of a translator, here is a basic layout of what these alert levels mean.

Alert level 1: Social distancing in daily life

  • Conditions: The medical system is able to control the current caseload. This level is put in place when the virus surpasses 100 cases in an urban area or 30 cases in a rural area every day for one week. This level can be implemented sooner depending on the age of those infected — for example, if more than 40 people over the age of 60 in an urban area or 10 people over the age of 60 in a rural area get sick.
  • General response: The government disinfects high-risk areas, such as bus and train stations, schools, etc., and stresses social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing.
  • Masks: Everywhere but open outdoor areas.
  • Gatherings: Events with more than 500 people must be reported to the government so that, if approved, they know where to start tracing if an outbreak results from it.
  • Sports: 50% audience capacity.
  • Public transportation: Mandatory mask-wearing.
  • Schools: Recommended two-thirds capacity (left to the school’s discretion).
  • Religious services: Empty seats required between people. Gathering and eating are not recommended.
  • Workplace: Employees at high-risk workplaces like call centers must wear masks, and the government recommends that companies have as many employees as possible work from home.

Alert level 1.5: Virus begins to spread in a single area

  • Conditions: Medical systems start to reach maximum capacity, and the situation persists for one week.
  • General response: In infected areas, there is a limit on the number of people in certain facilities. In uninfected regions, it is left to the discretion of the governor.
  • Masks: Requirements now include outdoor sports arenas.
  • Gatherings: No gatherings over 100 people.
  • Sports: 30% audience capacity.
  • Public transportation: Mandatory mask-wearing.
  • Schools: Two-thirds capacity required.
  • Religious services: 30% capacity. No eating.
  • Workplace: The government recommends that one-third of a company’s employees be made remote. (Until later alert levels, the South Korean government does not force companies to send workers home and instead relies on them to follow recommendations and do their best.)

Alert level 2: Virus spreads from one city to another

  • Conditions: The conditions from level 1.5 do not improve and it appears that the virus is not being contained enough to reverse the spread. This level is also triggered if daily cases are over 300 for a week or when more than two cities are experiencing alert levels of 1.5 (where cases haven’t gone down or there is still stress on the medical system).
  • General response: A ban on events with over 100 people goes into effect in infected areas, and a limit is put on the number of people allowed in drinking establishments. After 9 p.m., all restaurants can only serve takeaway.
  • Masks: Required in all indoor places and while playing outdoor sports.
  • Gatherings: No gatherings over 100 people.
  • Sports: 10% audience capacity.
  • Public transportation: No eating on public transportation.
  • Schools: One-third capacity except for high schools that remain at two-thirds enrollment. (The rationale is that South Korean high school students have very important tests to study for — the Suneung being the main one.)
  • Religious services: 20% capacity.
  • Workplace: Same requirements as level 1.5.

The government announces an alert level in my area; that’s it. I know an approximation of the current conditions. I know what to expect. I know what I have to do.

Alert level 2.5: Virus has started to spread throughout the country

  • Conditions: The pandemic has started to exceed the limits of the medical system. Daily cases have exceeded 400 for one week or more. Two or more areas are seeing cases double every day.
  • General response: Ban on gatherings of over 50 people, and all establishments where socializing happens are required to close at 9 p.m.
  • Masks: Everywhere except outdoors with two meters of distance.
  • Gatherings: No more than 50 people.
  • Sports: Games permitted to happen but with no audience.
  • Public transportation: Recommended 50% capacity on city-to-city transportation.
  • Schools: One-third capacity everywhere.
  • Religious services: Fewer than 20 people.
  • Workplace: Recommended one-third of employees work from home.

Alert level 3: Virus is overwhelming the system, and cases are approaching critical levels

  • Conditions: Medical system has collapsed. Cases are averaging 800–1,000 for one week or the number of severe cases in patients 60 and older are rapidly increasing.
  • General response: Ban on gatherings of over 10 people. Everything is closed.
  • Masks: Same as level 2.5.
  • Gatherings: Fewer than 10 people.
  • Sports: No games.
  • Public transportation: Required 50% capacity on city-to-city transportation.
  • Schools: Via Zoom only.
  • Religious services: Stay home and pray.
  • Workplace: Only essential services.

Throughout each of these alert levels, there is a consistent baseline of safety protocols: proper ventilation in buildings, social distancing, mask-wearing, and contact tracing. Any time I visit a restaurant or bar, there is a sheet where I fill out my name, phone number, the time I arrived, and my temperature. This way, if anyone gets infected who was in that restaurant anywhere around the time I was, I will be notified and know to get tested or self-isolate.

I started this article last week, and within a day, the alert level had risen to 2. That is where it stands now, with case numbers dancing back and forth over the 500-per-day mark. My Thanksgiving plans were canceled. Fairly instantly, I found myself working from home. If I had kids, I’d know what the protocol would be. The main benefit of these levels is that when cases go up, I am not scanning Twitter for updates, waiting on press conferences from my governor, or wondering when and how my life is going to change. The government announces an alert level in my area; that’s it. I know an approximation of the current conditions. I know what to expect. I know what I have to do.

This constant change does put a strain on people. Life is more difficult and unpredictable. And every day, it takes a lot of effort for Korean people to keep changing their habits to make sure the pandemic stays contained. But what choice do we have? To simply let people needlessly die?

No, of course not. That would be insane.

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