By Sola Ogundipe
Among countries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea stands out. The Asian country’s containment effort is widely regarded a model. It has demonstrated that containing the coronavirus, while difficult, can be beaten with smart, aggressive public health measures.
With a total of 9,332 confirmed cases, out of which 4, 528 fully recovered (as of 6 am on Friday 27th March), South Korea’s recovery rate is among the highest in the world.
South Korea has managed to significantly slow the number of new cases and appears to have reined in the outbreak without some of the strict lockdown strategies deployed elsewhere in the world.
Without having to shut everything down, the nation has made tactical decisions regarding schools, and movements, and been able to move forward without applying some of the draconian measures. Indeed countries that have tested widely for the virus, isolated cases and quarantined suspected cases — in the way that South Korea and Singapore have done — have managed to suppress transmission of the coronavirus.
So effective and novel is the South Korean approach that the World Health Organisation, WHO, called on other countries around the world to “apply the lessons learned in the country and elsewhere” in their own battles against the coronavirus. If other countries are to heed this advice, certainly, the world would be much closer to containing the pandemic. There are four major lessons for Nigeria and other countries on containing the pandemic.
Lesson 1: Intervene fast before it’s a crisis
Just one week after South Korea’s first case was diagnosed in late January, government officials facilitated immediate development of coronavirus test kits for mass production, promising emergency approval.
Within two weeks, thousands of test kits were shipping daily. The country now produces 100,000 kits per day, and officials say they are in talks with 17 foreign governments about exporting them.
Officials swiftly imposed emergency measures in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million where the contagion spread fast through a local church.
The country could deal with the challenge without limiting the movement of people because the main source of infection was known – the church congregation.
South Koreans, unlike Europeans, Americans and Africans were also primed to treat the coronavirus as a national emergency.
Lesson 2: Test early, test often
South Korea conducted over 300,000 tests, more people than any other country, enabling it to isolate and treat many people soon after they are infected. Its approach to testing was designed to turn back an outbreak already underway.
Testing is central because it leads to early detection, minimises further spread and quickly treats those found with the virus. Testing is the key to the very low fatality rate.
Over 600 testing centres are designed to screen as many people as possible, as quickly as possible – and keep health workers safe by minimising contact.
There are drive-thru stations, where patients are tested without leaving their cars. They are given a questionnaire, a remote temperature scan, and a throat swab. The process takes about 10 minutes. Test results are usually back within hours.
Relentless public messaging urges South Koreans to seek testing if they or someone they know develop symptoms. Visitors from abroad are required to download a smartphone app that guides them through self-checks for symptoms. Offices, hotels and other large buildings often use thermal image cameras to identify people with fevers. Many restaurants check customers’ temperatures before accepting them.
Lesson 3: Contact tracing, isolation, and surveillance
Aggressive contact tracing was adopted. When someone tests positive, health workers retrace the patient’s recent movements to find, test – and, if necessary, isolate – anyone the person may have had contact with. Health workers identify networks of possible transmission early. But as the coronavirus outbreak grew too big to track patients so intensively, officials relied more on mass messaging.
Emergency alerts are sent to the cellphones of South Koreans whenever new cases are discovered in their districts.
Websites and smartphone apps detail hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute, timelines of infected people’s travel – which buses they took, when and where they got on and off, even whether they were wearing masks.
By identifying and treating infections early, and segregating mild cases to special centres, South Korea has kept hospitals clear for the most serious patients. Its case fatality rate is just over 1 percent, among the lowest in the world.
Lesson 4: Enlist the public’s help
It was quickly accepted that subduing the outbreak required keeping citizens fully informed and asking for their cooperation. Television broadcasts, subway station announcements, and smartphone alerts provide endless reminders to wear face masks, pointers on social distancing and the day’s transmission data. Public trust resulted in a very high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation that strengthens collective effort. The country’s nationalised healthcare system, which guarantees most care, and special rules covering coronavirus-related costs, as giving even people with no symptoms greater incentive to get tested.
For all the attention to South Korea’s successes, its methods and containment tools are not prohibitively complex or expensive. Some of the technology the country has used is as simple as specialised rubber gloves and cotton swabs. If Nigeria and other countries currently in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, hope to follow South Korea’s lead, they must overcome three major hurdles that have nothing to do with cost or technology. There must be political will. Nations must not hesitate to impose onerous measures in the absence of a crisis-level outbreak.
Public will is critical. The level of social trust in South Korea is higher than in many other countries, particularly in the Western world. While time poses the greatest challenge for countries already deep into the COVID-19 epidemic to control the outbreak as quickly or efficiently as South Korea, it holds the advantage for countries like Nigeria, where the pandemic is still at the nascent stage.
China has successfully turned back the catastrophic first outbreak in Hubei, a province larger than most European countries, but it was at the cost of shutting down its economy. South Korea’s methods could help other countries like Nigeria avoid the worst of the tragic suffering of the pandemic.