South Korea and the United States identified their first cases of Covid-19 around the same time, in mid-to-late January. But while case counts exploded and are still high in many parts of the U.S., South Korea quickly stanched the infection’s spread without forcible lockdowns or an economic shutdown. The country is still seeing hotspots of infection, including recent outbreaks at a nightclub and an industrial warehouse, but its per-capita deaths and its economic contraction have been among the world’s lowest.
Some have suggested luck has a lot to do with South Korea’s comparatively successful coronavirus response: Less than a month before the country identified its first case of Covid-19, it had completed a tabletop exercise on emergency preparedness for a viral pneumonia, and its first cluster of cases was among young, relatively invulnerable attendees of a single church.
But if South Korea’s success is attributable to luck, it’s mostly in the sense that luck favors the prepared. When learning of the details of the country’s pandemic response, “I was most impressed by two things that happened before Covid,” says Jennifer Bouey, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization. After a 2015 outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) led to 38 deaths and widespread criticism of the country’s uncoordinated response, South Korea made some major changes to its public health emergency response framework — and its resulting pandemic preparedness likely explains why it so quickly crushed its coronavirus curve.
The Real Reason South Korea Was Able to Stop Covid-19
Political accountability is the missing ingredient
One set of important post-MERS adjustments were changes to South Korea’s laws clarifying the roles of national and local government, public health, and industry sectors in the event of another outbreak. As a consequence, sectors collaborated early and…