Former South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, in an appearance at Perry World House, outlined how his nation swiftly contained COVID -19 at the start of the pandemic with the “K-Quarantine” strategy, and offered his thoughts on how the world might better respond when the next pandemic hits.
“We are not safe as humans unless everybody is safe,” said Chung, speaking in Korean and interpreted for the audience by James Y. Victory. “What we learned from the pandemic is that just because a few countries are doing well does not mean everybody will survive.”
Chung, a Distinguished Global Leader at Perry World House and Moon Family Distinguished Lecturer at the James Joo-Jin Kim Center for Korean Studies this academic year, was the featured speaker of last week’s Moon Family Distinguished Lecture, co-sponsored by both centers.
In opening remarks, Steven J. Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and Thomas S. Gates Jr. Professor, noted that the Kim Center was created earlier this year as part of a gift from James Joo-Jin Kim and Agnes Kim, and the James and Agnes Kim Family Foundation.
“Given the School’s and the University’s commitment to the study of Korea, the prime minister’s presence at Perry World House this year and today for the Moon Family Distinguished Lecture is indeed a very great honor,” he said.
The talk was moderated by Hyunjoon Park, the Korea Foundation Professor of Sociology and director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Center.
“I’m sure that you all have watched the movie “Parasite,” the TV show “Squid Game,” and perhaps listened to BTS and Blackpink,” Park said, while introducing Chung. “This is a great moment for Korean studies to show how the Korean experience can provide global implications beyond the Korean peninsula. Having Prime Minister Chung as this year’s speaker represents the Kim Center’s core mission to put Korea at the center of addressing global issues such as climate change, migrations and inequality.”
Just six days after Chung was sworn in as prime minister, South Korea had its first case of COVID -19, making it among the first nations in the world to tackle the new deadly virus.
South Korean authorities immediately recognized the need for accurate, rapid testing and developed those test kits faster than any other country, enabling them to export them throughout the world, Chung said. There was a similar effort to make and export masks very quickly at the pandemic’s start.
He credits the country’s successful response to transparency, democracy and openness.
“Under the three principles, we allowed everybody to know what was going on. That’s the transparency. We respected people’s volunteerism when it came to quarantine; that would be democracy. And then the openness was allowing people to travel without any lockdown,” he said. “This was how we were able to manage COVID -19.”
Because of the quick containment, Korea never experienced a lockdown like other nations and was still able to host large events, he said.
He described his country’s approach to the novel disease as “TTT plus IQ”: test, tracing and treatment, plus isolation and quarantine.
Because of the availability of testing, Korean authorities could identify sick patients early and react preemptively, he said. Tracing using digital data enabled them to find the location of those with positive symptoms and track credit card usage information to find out where they might have been and who else had been exposed.
“Once we were able to identify the test-positive people, then we started utilizing our medical resources to ensure that they receive the proper treatment and this led to our high success ratio and low death rate,” he said.
Treatment was streamlined because the government health plan pays for care, he said. They were then able to isolation positive cases in “separate living medical centers” and, because of South Koreans’ overall trust of their government, they complied readily with self-quarantining recommendations, he said.
Chung said the volunteerism of South Koreans and the sense of cooperation among the people and government worked to everyone’s advantage.
“Once you have the trust of the people, it is possible to have a high rate of vaccination,” he said. But it wasn’t just the cooperation of the Korean people that led to the success in battling Covid-19, Chung said.
They were also helped by the geography of South Korea, which, while technically a peninsula, provides an island’s isolation because it is blocked off to the north by North Korea.
“We are truly an island that is a peninsula,” Chung said, noting other countries that were successful in heading off the pandemic were also islands: Taiwan, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland.
In order to be more effective in fighting the next pandemic, the international community has to learn from the success and failure of individual countries and to set up a system of cooperation, he said.
“We need to have exchange academically, technically, and also on a political level,” he said. “Korea has already shared its lessons with other countries, and I encourage others to do the same.”
South Korea, after the U.S. and U.K., was the third country to mass produce COVID -19 vaccines and treatments. And in the February of this year, the World Health Organization designated South Korea as a bio-manufacturing hub, he said.
“We intend to help middle- and low-income countries with the production of vaccines and biomedicines and also provide education and training to those countries,” he said.
In wrapping up the event, LaShawn R. Jefferson, Perry World House senior executive director, noted there were many lessons to take away from South Korea’s management of the pandemic.
“We learned that data really matters and having comprehensive programs really matter,” she said. “And it really matters to have a sense of community and interdependence and responsibility to beat any pandemic, both today’s and, unfortunately, tomorrow’s.”