THE Philippines sent its doctors and engineers to help rebuild South Korea from the ravages of war in the sixties. During my fellowship in Daejeon two years ago, I learned we even sent rice to feed their poor after the Korean war.
Today, South Korea is recognized by the world for its excellent initial response and systematic system establishment in the face of Covid-19, putting even the US and European countries to shame.
They say - the pandemic is far from over - there is yet no vaccine and experts say it will take a year. I wish our leaders will learn from the experience of South Korea. Humility of leaders is what we need today. In all sectors to understand the right strategies.
For my column this week, I wish to feature verbatim the BBC interview of South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha about her country’s strategy. Here are her answers to questions:
On what is her country’s strategy: The basic principle is openness, transparency and fully keeping the public informed. And I think this is paying off. We have very good health care system to begin with. We have a system that is highly wired as you can imagine. And fully utilizing that, we have dealt with this outbreak from the very beginning with transparency and that’s the way we’ve won the public trust and support for this. And as you say, we are seeing a stabilizing trend.
For three days in a row, newly confirmed positive cases are smaller than the number of those fully cured and released.
On testing 20,000 people a day: We first of all, testing is central because that leads to early detection, minimizes further spread and it quickly treats those found with the virus that’s the key behind our very low fatality rate as well. I think our system quickly approved the testing system after the Chinese authorities released the genetic sequence of the virus in mid-January. Our health authorities quickly conferred with the research institution here and then shared that result with the pharmaceutical companies who then produced the reagent and the equipment needed for the testing. And so, I think our testing is nearly a quarter of a million at this point. 268,000 as of today. That’s remarkable.
On how they monitor people: Well, I think this is being faithful to the values of our very vibrant democracy which is open and the government full 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 we are monitoring very closely the inbound traffic we have also put in place vetting of outbound traffic so that (not only do) we minimize the risk coming in from the inbound traffic. But also make sure that we do our very best to contain the spread within country, but also (take) steps to vet those with possible symptoms among those who are leaving the country.
On whether they are over the worst: Well, the peak of new cases was in late February when we had hit over 900 new confirmed cases. That has now come down to 76 new cases as of today. So yes, we are definitely seeing a normalizing trend in reduction of new cases but of course we are not complacent. This is just not about us. And 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.
Our economy depends on this interdependency with the outside world. So, we want to keep the doors open with the other countries. And so, as this disease spreads to many more countries, we are watching very closely and we are committed to maintaining our open approach. It may not be applicable in the countries with less IT infrastructure and other values. 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. So we hope that our experience and our approach and model (not only) informs other countries dealing with this Covid-19 but also (leads) to greater international collaboration for better preparedness when this comes around the next time.
On whether Covid-19 is coming to an end: One thing I would also like to point out, as government, we also have to guard against panic. I think governments have to be cool headed about this and do what we do based on evidence and science declaration of the pandemic by the WHO risks turning the spread of the virus into a spread of fear and phobia. I can’t tell you how many incidents I get reports of Asians, not just Koreans being verbally abused, even physically attacked in other countries. 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 together, globally.