South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in Seoul (Image: EPA/JEON HEON-KYUN)

So, where to now for Australia?

Our COVID-19 epidemic curve appears to have turned a corner, with daily new infections remaining low since before Easter — an early sign we may have avoided the devastation seen in Europe and the United States.

The road back to normal will likely be slow and littered with speed bumps, but to get a clearer picture it’s worth looking to other countries further down for guidance.

And there’s no country we’d rather be right now than South Korea.

What South Korea did right

In late February, right before an outbreak of COVID-19 among secretive Shincheonji cult, South Korean President Moon Jae-In confidently declared the virus would disappear. Days later, the country had the most infections outside of China.

But from that point on South Korea has wrenched its curve downward. It has tested over 500,000 people, introduced a rigorous contract tracing program that includes a tracking app and regular phone alerts, maintained a highly effective border control and quarantine program, and given advice on social distancing.

Even though Korea didn’t introduce the kind of tough lockdowns seen in Europe and China, things have worked. While it currently has 10,683 cases, the number of new daily infections has fallen since early March, and is now in the single digits.

The country has seen 237 deaths, a rate of five per million people, far closer to Australia (three) than the US (136) or Spain (455). Both our curves now look remarkably flat, as these charts from the Financial Times show:

Daily confirmed cases (Image: FT)
Cumulative cases (Image: FT)

But there are deeper historical and cultural factors that could be behind Korea’s success, says Dr Jo Elfving-Hwang, an associate professor in Korean Studies at the University of Western Australia.

The country has already been hit by two pandemics this century — SARS and MERS. The latter, which in 2015 killed 36 people and caused plenty of economic damage, led to an overhaul of the Korean Centers for Disease Control, criticised greatly at the time for its sluggish response.

The country has been ahead of the curve when it comes to testing capacity. Since the late 1990s, Korea has put substantial public investment into its cutting-edge biomedical sector. That investment has paid off in times of crisis, allowing the country to quickly mobilise a high-quality testing regime. 

Finally, Elfving-Hwang says there’s a kind of practical, community-oriented mindset that means many Koreans are more willing to stay home to protect the country.

“There’s a history of responding collectively to crises for common good. The idea of looking out for each other is really strong, especially with these pandemics that affect everyone,” she says.

This attitude could also be a product of Korean history — war, dictatorship and the constant existential threat of attack from North Korea are all crises that loom large in the collective memory.

It’s that civic-mindedness which has allowed South Korea to flatten its curve without enacting some of the more restrictive measures taken across the world, including here in Australia. Restaurants remain open, and people do not need to fall within a narrow list of reasonable excuses to venture outdoors.

What can we learn?

Despite our differences, Australia and South Korea did many of the same things right, says Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician and professor at the Australian National University.

“A lot of testing, a lot of quarantine, a lot of chasing people up who’d been infected — that’s what made all the difference.”

Collignon says Korea is about four to six weeks ahead of Australia, so it’s crucial we keep an eye on whatever steps they take next. And given the country’s less restrictive measures, it could give us a taste of just how much freedom we can safely enjoy.

Another reason Korea is a good news story for Australia is that they’ve managed to flatten their curve coming out of winter. Collignon believes the colder months, where infectious diseases are more likely to spread, could be Australia’s “biggest test.”

Korea is hedging the next phase of its COVID-19 battle on its technological prowess. Already it has in place a highly-sophisticated tracing system where people receive regular text alerts, as well as a tracking app mandatory for new arrivals. Quarantine breachers must wear an electronic bracelet.

From an Australian standpoint, some of this may seem draconian. The government’s planned smartphone tracking app has attracted legitimate fears that privacy may be compromised. 

But Elfving-Hwang says that while opinions are divided among friends and colleagues in Korea, many see such tracking as a short-time compromise for the greater good.

“The downside [to the tracking system] is that people are worried about the government spying on them,” she says. “But many are alright with it because they see it as a temporary measure, and are happy the government is looking out for them.”

A recent Seoul National University study found nearly 80% of Koreans would be willing to sacrifice their right to privacy to help with a pandemic.

The vast uptake of such technology in Korea tells us one critical lesson for pandemic governance — the importance of trust. 

Collignon notes that tracking apps and lockdown rules that strip away people’s freedoms are a balancing act which will only work if the community agrees with them. 

“We’ve got to have rules and laws and regulations that all of us think are a great idea,” he says.

But in Korea, buoyed by a successful response to the pandemic, trust and satisfaction with the government is booming.

At recent legislative elections, President Moon’s once unpopular government won the biggest majority since the end of military rule in 1987.