SEOUL, South Korea — It took Thomas Streetman two hours to walk out his front door, take a cab to the public health center, get tested for the coronavirus and make it back to his apartment.
The 32-year-old Ohio native — who had a slight fever — was greeted with blue tents scattered across a surprisingly barren street. Medical staff clad head-to-toe in hazmat suits conducted screenings as another fogged the sidewalk with disinfectant spray.
“It was almost militaristic,” said Streetman, who has lived in the South Korean capital for almost a decade. “They stuck a long swab up my nose pretty deep. It felt like a button poked my nerves and released my sinuses.”
Streetman, who works as a marketing manager at a gaming company in Seoul, received his negative results in less than 24 hours and is now one of more than 327,000 people out the country’s 51 million-strong population to be tested for the novel coronavirus in South Korea since the country confirmed its first case Jan. 21.
The United States, which confirmed its first case on the same date, is suffering from the repercussions of a weeks-late start in obtaining test kits.
Since March 11, South Korea has seen a general decline in the number of new coronavirus cases, some as low as 74 and 76 each day – a stark comparison to its peak of 909 cases Feb 29.
The U.S. is one of many countries that has followed South Korea’s lead by beginning to instill drive-thru testing hubs at CVS, but the slow installation comes at a time of national panic with over 80 million Americans already under lockdown.
Here’s what we can learn from South Korea.
Early testing, detection, prevention
News that China had reported its first case of the coronavirus was enough reason for South Korean leaders and medical staff to brace themselves for the worst.
“Acting fast was the most important decision South Korea made,” said Hwang Seung-Sik, a professor at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health.
By early February, the first test was approved. Active collaboration among central and regional government officials and medical staff transpired before cases began piling up, enabling South Korea’s current testing capacity of 20,000 individuals per day at 633 different sites, including drive-through centers and even phone booths.
This collaborative effort was just 11 days after “Patient 31,” a member of a secretive religious group called the Shincheonji Church, caused an explosion of infections in Daegu, a major city 170 miles southeast of Seoul.
Early testing meant early detection of infections in South Korea, where a relatively larger proportion of cases exhibited either no symptoms or very mild ones, according to Hwang.
“Among Shincheonji members, there were many 20- and 30-year-olds who were infected. Many of them may have never even known they were carrying the virus and recovered easily while silently infecting those around them,” Hwang said. “Early testing is why Korea hasn’t reached its breaking point yet.”
Under South Korea’s single-payer health care system, getting tested costs $134. But with a doctor’s referral or for those who’ve made contact with an infected person, testing is free. Even undocumented foreigners are urged to get tested and won’t face threats due to their status.
Extensive tracing and mapping
South Korean leaders have amped up efficiency for overwhelmed hospitals by digitally monitoring lower-risk patients under quarantine, as well as keeping close tabs on visiting travelers who are required to input their symptoms into an app.
Sites like Corona Map generate real-time updates about where current patients are located and inform proactive Koreans focused on protecting themselves.
People wait outside a pharmacy in southern Seoul to purchase their weekly ration of two masks
That people are willing to forgo privacy rights and allow the publication of sensitive information underlines the willingness to pay the digital cost of state surveillance in the name of public safety, says professor Ju Youngkee, who teaches health and data journalism at Hallym University.
According to a survey conducted last month by Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health , 78.5 percent of respondents agreed that they would sacrifice the protection of their privacy rights to help prevent a national epidemic.
Public spaces transformed into PSA venues
The refusal by some Britons to follow the government’s social distancing measures in the United Kingdom prompted the closure of thousands of pubs, cafes and restaurants last week, leaving many to consider layoffs and shutting for good.
In South Korea though, reminders from the government aren’t delivered in the form of blanket lockdowns. Commuters wait at the platform and in subway cars, as announcements are played in different languages, including English and Chinese. A female voice lists tips such as “blocking” your mouth when coughing.
These broadcasts are one of many upgrades from the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak — a failing of the South Korean system that cost 38 lives and amounted to 186 cases, the highest number outside the Middle East.
Now, hand sanitizer bottles are placed in front of nearly every entrance and elevator for public use. And of the 1,000 people who took part in a study by Seoul National University, 97.6 percent responded that they at least sometimes wear a mask when outside, 63.6 percent of whom said they always wear one.
“Wearing masks or self-monitoring alone isn’t foolproof to people in Korea, but taking part in these practices as a group is believed to have an impact,” said Michael Hurt, who teaches cultural theory at Korea National University of the Arts.
“This says that your individual choices may not have immediate benefit to you as an individual but will benefit the herd. That it doesn’t work unless everybody is in the game.”
Despite its apparently swift recovery from the novel coronavirus, South Korea may only be entering the beginning stages of what experts suspect to be a potentially long ride ahead.
According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), approximately 80 percent of COVID-19 cases can be categorized as mass infections. Earlier this month, a call center in southwestern Seoul was at the epicenter of a local outbreak that generated more than 156 infections. Roughly 90 cases were traced back to a Zumba class.
“Even though the number of reported cases is declining, this may be painting an illusion of recovery,” Hwang said. “All 210,000 Shincheonji members have been tested which may account for the decline we’re seeing, but local infection clusters are emerging every day in churches, hospitals and other mundane spaces.”
South Korea has already commenced new testing on all arrivals from Europe, according to local news reports, preparing for a “second wave” of imported clusters. Even those who test negative are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“We are proceeding with cautious hopefulness,” Hwang said.