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[Robert J. Fouser] South Korea’s ‘with COVID’ turn

Soon half the world’s population will have been vaccinated for COVID-19. As of this writing, 49 percent, or 3.76 billion people, have received at least one dose. This is impressive considering that the first doses were given only ten months ago. Though much work remains, particularly in addressing vaccine inequality, the trajectory is favorable. By the end of 2022, the world could be over 90 percent vaccinated, which should bring the pandemic to an end.

After a slow start, South Korea has done an excellent job at vaccinations. As of Oct. 18, 78 percent of South Korea’s population had received one dose, ranking it 17th in the world. Among nations with a population over 50 million, South Korea ranks first. The percentage that is fully vaccinated drops to 65 percent, but that number will move up steadily. Some predictions early in the year suggested that South Korea would not cross 60 percent fully vaccinated until early or mid-2022, but the country has crossed that milestone several seasons earlier.

The high rate of vaccination has encouraged the government to move toward loosening social distancing measures and other restrictions. The policy known as “living with COVID-19” implies that people can return to normal life through vaccination while being mindful that the virus has not disappeared. This should help people remain prepared for mitigation efforts if necessary.

South Korea’s “living with COVID-19” comes at an important stage in the pandemic. Since the pandemic began, countries have broken into two main groups: the Optimists versus the Shutdowners. The Optimists have underestimated the virus from the start and have tried to wish it away. They adopted mitigation measures initially but found it difficult to stick to them over time. The Shutdowners, meanwhile, recognized the severity of the virus and adopted strict shutdowns to halt the spread. Early success led to extended shutdowns amid false hopes that the virus could be eliminated.

In the middle sits South Korea as the largest and most important country in a small group of Pragmatists. The country’s pragmatic approach to the pandemic explains much of its success and stands as a benchmark for dealing with future pandemics.

South Korea’s recent experience with outbreaks of infectious diseases helped prepare the country. In the early 2000s, the country took measures to limit the effects of severe acute respiratory syndrome and only reported three cases. In the first half of the 2010s, the country fought two outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome. Both diseases come from coronaviruses and have a higher death rate than COVID-19.

When COVID-19 swept over China, South Korea began to prepare for the inevitable. After the first few cases, the government began contact tracing and supported speedy development of tests. The rapid deployment of tests combined with effective contact tracing limited the spread of the first major outbreak in Daegu. Speed, both in government and private sector action, was critical at this early stage.

While working to contain the disease, the government began mitigation measures, such as mask mandates and social distancing. Unlike many other nations, these measures were not politicized. The public recognized that COVID-19 was serious and accepted the necessity of these measures. To maintain public trust, the government focused on measures that would achieve social distancing without harsh measures such as shutdowns or extended school closures. Effective contact tracing and widely available testing made this easier.

As 2020 wore on and the pandemic worsened, South Korea earned wide praise for its containment and mitigation measures. These measures kept case levels low throughout 2020, except for a brief spike in August. Success helped maintain social trust and cohesion, something governments in other places could only dream of.

The development of vaccines changed the landscape in 2021. Social trust and cohesion began to fray when the vaccine supplies were limited but case levels, though higher than 2020, were steady, which helped buy time until supplies increased. Vaccine supplies started to increase in June, just before the delta variant hit. As cases jumped, the government began stricter mitigation measures but adapted them to changing conditions. Some have stirred criticism, but evidence of a speedier vaccine rollout kept criticism and politicization at bay.

The big lesson here is that political leaders and health authorities need to earn trust and cooperation by adapting their responses to changing conditions on the ground. The same pragmatism will be critical to a successful transition to a “living with COVID-19” future. Nations looking for an exit strategy should take note.


Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.
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