HOW did they do it? How did the South Koreans go from being the worst affected country outside China to stopping the epidemic in its tracks and bringing new infections right down? Without full lock-down, without panic stockpiling, without every school closing down? And without any dramatic talk of being at ‘war’ or of government ‘emergency powers’ as in the UK – how did they do it?
Is it simply because South Korea is a more homogeneous and cohesive, less diverse and more responsible society which does not need to resort to authoritarian measures to get its people to act selflessly and responsibly?
Is the ‘liberal’ Mr Johnson’s sudden swing from complacency to draconianism because the country he is trying to run has lost – especially in the metropolis – its social cohesion, sense of unity or solidarity? Because Because we have become such a hyper-individualised society where rules never apply to ‘me’?
It can’t have helped.
The not insignificant matter of being prepared, following their brush with MERS in 2015, is also key to Korea’s success. Stocking up on testing equipment, being ready with tracking capacity and being quick to restrict travel from infected areas are all things they did without a lot of fuss and bother.
For the UK, most of these horses bolted once Britain’s public health advisers misread the threat. The government’s lack of preparedness for this scale of medical emergency has been evident since January. As a result, the prospect looms of even stricter restrictions on travel from heavily affected cities and regions, especially London, and on personal liberty.
Yet lessons from South Korea can still be learnt. It did not impose a full ‘lock-down’, as some countries have, but it has practised strong social distancing. As the virus spread, the cessation of meetings, events, and congregations became more and more thorough, almost all voluntary, as one observer, Robert E Kelly, explains here. He reports: ‘Just about any outdoor congregation is now ended. Concerts have canceled. Political protests, which are very common in South Korea, have all but stopped. Movie theaters are empty, and some are simply closing until further notice.’ He notes that though ‘there has been a lot of contention about families that cannot keep their kids at home when the parents must still go to work . . . the good news is that there is no panic. No western media-style sensationalist coverage talking about corona as “spiraling” or being “out of control”.’
He concludes:‘The popular discipline of the response has been quite admirable actually. Nor is there panic buying. When you do go to the grocery store, there is still lots to find.’
The South Korean government was proactive in ensuring parents were supported with childcare and businesses with financial support to tide them and their employees over, but not everything stopped. The majority of the private ‘cram schools’ with which many South Koreans supplement their children’s education carried on, as pupils and parents were keen not to fall behind.
In the West, where sports organisations, businesses and individuals have taken the lead with social distancing common sense, cancelling social gatherings and initiating social contact avoidance measures, panic has still reached fever pitch as reported cases multiply. New modelling from Imperial College warning that ‘if the UK did nothing, 81 per cent of people would be infected and 510,000 would die from coronavirus by August’ adds to the drama, and has ‘bounced’ Mr Johnson into bringing in emergency powers and ramping up restrictions this week.
But is the model accurate? There are some reasons to think not. Consider the Diamond Princess – the cruise ship where all 3,700 people on board were exposed to the virus. Yet only 17 per cent contracted it, suggesting that the true infection rate may be a long way below that used in the doom-laden models.
Back in South Korea new cases have dropped off, and have not expanded exponentially, in China they have almost disappeared, and Japan has announced it is to lift its state of emergency. The virus has not spread much into northern China and Singapore, though that could be for a variety of reasons as well as restrictions.
It may also be the case that this virus is not as deadly as the crisis in Italy suggests, which may reflect, as in the UK, more a health service in crisis than a virus out of control. A report in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera points out this is not the first time Italian intensive care units have collapsed; they did so under the flu wave in 2017/2018 when they had to postpone operations, call nurses back from holiday and ran out of blood donations.
It is also instructive to compare the coronavirus to the annual flu epidemic that spreads around the globe each winter. The World Health Organisation estimates that globally 650,000 people die each year from flu. In the US alone this winter an estimated 36 million Americans (11 per cent) have caught flu and 22,000 have died, including 144 children. This was a good year, apparently. In 2014 according to the ONS more than 28,000 Britons died during the winter flu epidemic. One German virologist has even suggested that coronavirus is just one small part of the annual flu epidemic in the country, which includes various viruses, some of which are also a kind of coronavirus. Meanwhile Stanford Professor John P A Ioannidis argues there is insufficient medical data for the extreme measures currently being taken, and also no reason to think the new coronavirus is any more dangerous than some of the normal coronaviruses that go round, even in older people. Further evidence suggests that coronavirus is not causing an unusually high number of deaths and that overall mortality in all countries (including Italy) and in all age groups remains within or even below the normal range so far.
This raises the question: are we massively over-reacting to a virus that is very similar to those that go round every winter and kill thousands of (mainly older and otherwise at risk) people? If so, is there not a more proportionate response which recognises that while we should do all we can to save lives (including screening, testing and closing borders to a new identified outbreak), it should not come at the expense of crashing the economy, isolating millions of vulnerable people, and depriving an unquantifiable number of their income and livelihood?
Meanwhile, the government presses on with its liberty-destroying, ‘spray and pray’ measures that won’t work unless completely draconian as looks increasingly likely: lock-downs and quasi-totalitarian emergency powers, the main aim of which seems to be to buy time to ramp up testing and relieve peak pressure on the ill-equipped and under-prepared health service. There still appear to be no promises to test front-line doctors, health and social care workers.
The endpoint of the lock-down is unclear, adding to the chaos and uncertainty. Is it to buy time to create more ICU beds, find new treatments or wait for a vaccine? That could take well over a year.
If the virus abates, as other viruses do, during the summer, will we look back to this crazy spring and ask was all the costly confinement and economic suicide worth it? And will it make us reassess the virtues of more cohesive and less fragmented societies than ours?