South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha became the subject of worldwide praise after her interview with BBC news anchor Andrew Marr last week, about the effects of COVID-19 all over the world.
An image of calmness and eloquence, South Korea’s top diplomat emphasized the importance of transparency in dealing with a problem this sweeping. “The basic principle is openness, transparency, and fully keeping the public informed,” said the leader. “And I think this is paying off.”
South Korea—which has 8,897 total confirmed COVID-19 positive cases as of March 21, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)—has been lauded for its efficient strategy in slowing down the spread of the virus within their country. Instead of using the most common approach, which is to implement a lockdown, government focused on testing as many of their citizens as possible. As of the date of the interview, Foreign Minister Kang estimated that around 268,000 tests have already been done in the East Asian nation—with 20,000 tests done every day.
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The decision not to impose a lockdown, she said, was only being faithful to the character of her country, which is all about openness and an obligation to maintain standards: “This is being faithful to the the values of our very vibrant democracy, which is open—and the government is fully in the service of the people. And I have to say our public is very demanding and expects the highest standards from government services. And I think this is the key.”
The Foreign Minister has been a strong figure in South Korea, the first woman to be nominated and appointed to the position. She is also the first Korean woman to hold a high position in the United Nations, and is notable for the concise and articulate way she speaks in public.
While a lockdown is not in place in South Korea, other relevant measures have been put down in its stead. “We have a very good health care system to begin with,” the Foreign Minister reiterated. “We have a system that is highly wired, as you can imagine.”
The government created a monitoring phone application, which makes contact tracing easier. It also informs people on the whereabouts of the COVID-19 positive patients. Additionally, they are closely monitoring inbound and outbound traffic, to minimize the risk of spread. When authorities from China—where the 2019 novel coronavirus was first recorded—released the generic sequence of the virus sometime in January, the health authorities of South Korea immediately collaborated with their health and research institutions, and pharmaceutical companies to produce the reagent and equipment needed for testing.
In a country with a population of almost 52 million, haste is crucial.
“Testing is essential because that leads to early detection,” she said. “It minimizes further spread and it quickly treats those found with the virus. That’s the key behind our very low fatality rate.” As of press time, they have 104 total deaths. Also, at the time of the Foreign Minister’s interview, they have already seen a smaller number of confirmed cases than the number of patients who were fully cured or released—for three days in a row.
“This is not just about us”
What is most commendable in her articulation, however, is how the country is exceptionally inclusive. They understand that to combat this invisible enemy, the entire world has to work together.
“We are definitely seeing a normalizing trend in our reduction of new cases, but of course, we are not complacent: This is not just about us,” she said. “We are taking this approach of openness and transparency not just domestically, but to the international community because we are a country that is highly interdependent with the rest of the world.”
Even if their strategy may not be applicable to countries with less information technology (IT) infrastructure and with different values, she hopes that their model “informs” other countries about dealing with the pandemic. “But I think in the end, we have to acknowledge that this is not going to be the last time a novel pathogen becomes a global health threat.”
She calls on the government to “guard against panic.” She added, “I think governments have to be cool headed about this and do what we do based on evidence and science.” WHO’s declaration of the COVID-19 as a pandemic has turned the spread of the virus into a spread of fear and phobia.
Beginning early this year, there have been reports of Asians being physically attacked and bullied and abused online—even those who don’t reside within Asia. “The governments have to take responsibility to stop this kind of incident because that is not helpful to generating the spirit of collaboration that we absolutely need to overcome this challenge globally.”