As the South Koreans see Finland

South Korea's infections only in double digits: The 4th wave remained small

South Korea was able to fend off a wave of corona infections again. Determined action and cultural factors contributed to the success of the East Asians.

Preparations for Chuseok holiday with fewer Covid-19 infections Photo: Kim Jon-Ji / Reuters

BEIJINGtaz | Viewed from the outside, South Korea has all the characteristics that set the alarm bells ringing among epidemiologists: Half of the population of 51 million lives close together in an area that is only about a quarter of Switzerland. At the same time, the country is not only a neighbor with China, but also a close trading partner. The pandemic that broke out in Wuhan, China, could have spread quickly in South Korea.

And yet the country on the Han River has made it again: The East Asians were able to avert the fourth wave of corona within a month. For the third day in a row, the number of infections was again in the double-digit range, on Tuesday the health authorities reported only 51 local infections - the lowest value in five weeks. At the end of August it was almost ten times as much every day.

The epidemiological success comes at a critical point in time: the traditional Chuseok festival begins on September 30, when millions of Koreans visit their families.

While the Covid cases are skyrocketing in most European countries, a renewed lockdown at least no longer seems ruled out and the upcoming winter also increases the risk of infection, a look at the Korean peninsula seems instructive: How did South Korea do it several times to curb a runaway pandemic again and again?

Free churches and union protests as hotspots

Because so far only a little more than 23,000 people have contracted Covid-19 and fewer than 400 have died from it. The number of people actively infected is currently around 2,500.

In South Korea, too, the epidemiological situation threatened to tip over repeatedly: the virus was able to spread uncontrollably in a sect in the spring, and later another cluster originated from a gay club in the entertainment district of the capital Seoul. Most recently, free-church congregations and trade union protests have been corona hotspots.

As in Europe, the democratic South Korea, which is proud of its right to demonstrate, has to deal with government critics and downplayers of the virus who want to hold large public events. The fact that Koreans are primarily obedient to the authorities is just a cliché.

Digital monitoring and full coverage

According to a study by the University of Colorado Denver, South Korea is a leader in epidemiological field research. Covid patients were not only interviewed in detail from the beginning via contact persons, but their movements were also tracked at the same time using GPS data via smartphones and credit card transactions. According to government surveys, more than 80 percent of the population support the sometimes aggressive digital surveillance. It is also legally anchored in the Epidemic Act, which was introduced in the course of the MERS epidemic in 2015.

The state health insurance should also shoulder all quarantine, test and treatment costs for those affected. And when the government released additional funds equivalent to the equivalent of nine billion euros in March, it did so without much delay within twelve days. The fiscal package amounts to only around 0.7 percent of the gross domestic product, far less than, for example, the packages of measures in many European countries. However, according to the OECD forecast, South Korea will only experience an economic slump of one percent for 2020. Because Seoul has never had to impose a complete lockdown.

The government has taken precisely calibrated measures at a relatively constant rate. Level 2 social distance rules, which limit meetings within four walls to 50 and outdoor meetings to 100 people, still apply until next Sunday. At the same time, public institutions, including museums and libraries, are currently closed. Bars and nightclubs are open, but under strict conditions such as limited opening times. The measures will be relaxed again next Sunday.

At the same time, the East Asian tiger state was one of the first to introduce comprehensive, mostly free and, above all, quickly evaluated Covid tests - for example at "drive through" stations along busy roads. So far, almost 2.3 million South Koreans have been tested for the virus.

Masks as a sign of courtesy

An important factor for success is also a cultural one: wearing masks is quite common, even during normal influenza waves. It is polite not to want to infect other people. Koreans are also used to virus epidemics: Although they were not directly affected by SARS, the MERS coronavirus did not kill more people in any other country than in South Korea. In the early days of Covid, this quickly made it clear to the population that the situation was serious.