Following South Korea’s commendable response to their first encounter with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in January of 2020 (1), the nation now finds itself in a compromising position. Whilst initially internationally praised for their swift and organised testing, contact tracing, and implementation of public health policies including social-distancing and stay-at-home recommendations, positive cases are at a record high (2,3). Associated with a slow and limited vaccine rollout, a relatively flexible stay-at-home order and overburdened health facilities (3), a fatigued and frustrated community has lost faith in the public health system (3).
Earlier in the pandemic, South Korea seemed to have the outbreak of the virus relatively under control (4), established through the implementation of innovative public health policies. Drawing upon their experience with the 2015 Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome outbreak (3), South Korea adopted a test-trace-isolate strategy to control infection rates (3). The public health system’s collaboration with private biotechnology companies assisted the early development of over 15,950 testing kits (5), an average of 5200 per million people (5). The South Korean government implemented early stay-at-home and social-distancing measures, avoiding harsh lockdowns witnessed across the globe (3). This would later prove insufficient to slow infection rates. Population movement and self-isolation adherence was tracked via mobile GPS, digital payments transactions, and CCTV footage1, highlighting the public’s prioritisation of public health over privacy (1). These combined policies assisted South Korea in flattening the curve of infections by March of 20204, as new daily cases fell from 909, to an average of 55 from April to August (2). This arguably provided a false sense of security.
By December 2020, South Korea faced the third wave of the pandemic (4), with daily cases reaching all-time highs (2). This indicated that the key health policies implemented, although effective, were insufficient regarding a long-term solution (5).
As of July 2021 cases peaked, causing nationwide concern regarding the delayed vaccine rollout and the capacity of the hospitals to cope with the increasing infections influenced by the highly contagious Delta variant (4). South Korea operates under the National Insurance Model, involving the government acting as the single-payer in a profit-less system (6). Financial barriers to treatment are generally low (6), supporting the government’s decision to remove all out-of-pocket costs associated with COVID-19 (6). However, this would seem less of a necessary measure if the government had managed to maintain their early measures of urgency regarding public health.
By July 2021, South Korea reported less than 15% of their population was fully vaccinated (2). Having received global criticism for delayed vaccine rollout and shortages, South Korea trailed significantly behind the rest of the world (7). In South Korea, the Delta variant primarily affected unvaccinated people under the age of thirty; the most social and mobile of the population groups resulting in an even greater risk to infection rates (7). This slow rollout can be attributed to the South Korean Government’s over-reliance on locally produced vaccines, currently all of which have failed clinical trials (7). Clouded by their early pandemic success, the South Korean Government failed to see the urgency in the early securement of vaccines, with greater interest in vaccine rollouts across the globe (7). Furthermore, unvaccinated citizens and the resulting rise in cases placed the healthcare system under significant stress with some hospitals reporting bed shortages and reports of medical facilities demand exceeding supply (6,7). Overall, demonstrating the failure of the government and corresponding health system to proactively and continually respond to the pandemic.
With the third wave in December 2020, marking almost a year since the virus first reached South Korea, an “angry and frustrated” (3) community applied pressure to the government resulting in the easing of some social-distancing and restriction guidelines (3). This poor decision led to a spike in cases, with July 2021 statistics recording the highest number of new daily cases at 1896 (2). Initially argued that this increase was solely due to the highly contagious Delta variant, health experts disputed this claim as all pathogens have a greater capacity to spread and manifest within populations of greater movement and community interaction (8). Furthermore, community petitions were enacted protesting the government’s late and harsh restriction implementation (9). Included in the petitions was that harsher restrictions should have been enacted sooner allowing for businesses to be better prepared for change (9). Consequently resulting in public distrust and disappointment towards the government officials that lead the public health system.
South Korea’s early success in the tackling of the COVID-19 pandemic was short-lived and overshadowed by its failure to implement practical and consistent public health measures to keep the population safe. This included the securement of vaccines and medical facility accessibility. South Korea’s complacent and inconsistent approach to lockdowns and social distancing ultimately resulted in public insecurity regarding their health and safety, consequently losing faith in the public health system.
- Jeong E et al. Understanding South Korea’s Response to the COVID-19 outbreak: A Real-Time Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 December 21st; 17(24): 10.3390/ijerph17249571
- World Health Organisation. Republic of Korea Situation. WHO. 2021 August: https://covid19.who.int/region/wpro/country/kr
- Dighe a et al. Response to COVID-19 in South Korea and implications for lifting stringent interventions. BMC Med. 2020 October 9th; 18 (321): https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-020-01791-8
- Aslam H et al. Fighting COVID-19: Lessons from China, South Korea and Japan. JSTOR. 2020 April 13th: 1-23: https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24381
- University of Colorado Denver. Lessons from South Korea’s Covid-19 Policy Response. ScienceDaily. 2020 August 10th; www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200810141006.htm
- Dongarwar D et al. Implementation of universal health coverage by South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet. 2021 January 29th; 7: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lanwpc.2021.100093
- Jung J et al. Preparing for the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Vaccination: Evidence and Implications. JKMS. 2021 February 22nd; 36(7): https://doi.org/10.3346/jkms.2021.36.e59
- Byeon K et al. Factors affecting the survival of early COVID-19 patients in South Korea: An observational study based on the Korean National Health Insurance big data. IJID. 2021 April; 105: 588-594: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijid.2021.02.101
- Youngkee J et al. It’s Politics, Isn’t It? Investigating Direct and Indirect Influences of Political Orientation on Risk Perception of COVID-19. WILEY. 2021 August 29th; https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13801