Coronavirus disease COVID-19: Experiences from Korea

Media and people usually use “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” as exchangeable terms. They are not. Coronavirus disease COVID-19 is the latest discovered type of the coronaviruses family. 

As we all know, the COVID-19 outbreak started in Wuhan, China, December last year (2019). Two months later, after spreading to different provinces inside China, the virus was first reported in Korea: On February 15th, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare confirmed 28 cases.

One week later, the Korean media announced hundreds of coronavirus COVID-19 cases inside the city of Daegu and the surrounding province of Gyeongsangbuk-do. Links between a religious group called Shincheonji (based in Daegu) and multiple cases came out. The religious group gathered in big numbers during mass services and, unfortunately for all, disregarded the possible virus transmission among the attendees. Later on, the media would report that some of their members visited Wuhan on December 2019.

The Korean government reaction to stop the coronavirus spread

By February 26th, 2020, the Korean government was facing a massive coronavirus spread with more than 1,000 cases. Many can say that the answer to restrict travel between China and Korea should have come earlier, but the reality is that the economical impact and burden is not something you disregard easily. Whether it was the right decision, we cannot know. What we know is that what came next as the measures to control the massive spread were remarkable.

Korean medical system is showing they have been ready for this type of crisis for awhile.

At that point, the Korean medical services opened several drive-through testing sites around the country, using an emergency budget approved by the government. This action allowed, and still does, for thousands of citizens to get tested without the need of public transportation, limiting the social contact (15,000 tests per day). In addition to the drive-throughs, the authorities set alternative sites for testing around medical institutions at temporary buildings.

Unlike other countries, in Korea, the coronavirus detection tests have a cost of approximately $18 USD. This price has helped to reduce the burden for those already suffering the economical impact of the virus spread. The affordability of the test also has worked for people not to hide to save money while showing symptoms.

COVID-19 tests usually take 15 minutes per person. After the test, the medical services ask you to stay home and avoid social contact. One day later you receive the results on your mobile phone. In the case of a positive result (coronavirus presence) a contingency team will arrive at your location and take you into a medical facility.

At the moment of writing (March 13th) the number of tested people is close to 250,000. From those 3.2% have tested positive (7,979 cases), 89.6% have tested negative and 7.2% are waiting for their results. The level of testing is one key factor to stop the spread at an early stage. It has given transparency to the process and therefore, it has created a controlled environment to fight the coronavirus spread. Those numbers are important to everyone, including nations preparing for the spread. Nobody can predict when or where the virus will hit, it’s just foolish to believe so. At this point it’s hard to believe there are zero cases in some countries, but that is irrelevant. What matters is the sense of transparency, collaboration and understanding among nations.

Coronavirus Korea: (March 13th) the number of tested people is close to 250,000. From those 3.2% have tested positive (7,979 cases), 89.6% have tested negative

Reliable Information to control the coronavirus spread

Information access becomes essential under emergency circumstances. For that, the use of the prevailing communications infrastructure and technology is fundamental. The Korean government, in a matter of days, created official websites for citizens to track the spread. It also made use of the mobile carriers “emergency message system” to alert people of possible risk zones. Those emergency messages lead to district blog websites where anybody can read in detail the “travelled path” and places new cases visited. As an additional tool, the authorities enabled a mobile app to track sites where to buy masks and restrict their sale by year of birth, two per person and location. 

Here are some links:

http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/

https://mask-nearby.com/map

Toughest test for the Korea medical system 

Stopping the spread is just one part of the equation. The other side is to help those infected. As reported, at this moment there are close to 7,400 active cases under treatment. That means 7,400 hospital beds including ICUs, thousands of trained medical personnel rotating 24/7 and millions of disposable medical products, tools and equipment at use. All of that organized by a complex patient distribution system. And yet, the hospitals and clinics are operating normally, yes, with an extra layer of preventive measures, but without disruption. 

In the waiting rooms there is no sense of overload. Patients remain calm and follow protocols. Overall, the Korean medical system is showing they have been ready for this type of crisis for awhile.

Korean government created official websites for citizens to track the spread.

Additional services when at crisis

As a last point, and it’s not to diminish its importance, it’s worth to mention the online and phone counseling services that the government opened last week. This program is set to help citizens dealing with the solitude of working from home, those self-quarantined and other distressed by the whole situation. There is an understandable amount of fear not only for the health implications, but also what might happen with the local economy for months to come.

Final word about the COVID-19 pandemic

The world is in front of a pandemic. The challenges ahead are multiple in every single possible way: from personal health to macroeconomics. It might take weeks, perhaps months, for the system to go back on track. This means it is the right time to join forces and learn from each other. 

The recovery will start when nations and citizens realize it is the time to collaborate all together, avoid creating fear, misinforming and trying to make a profit out of this. Transparency, collaboration and solidarity are the tools that will help us, the world, to overcome this adversity. Good luck to us.

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