South Korea has adopted a highly technical and transparent approach to Covid-19. By sharing where infected people have been, citizens can see if they have been in contact or near contact with the infected person, and then request a test.
Since the first cases were confirmed, Korean public health authorities and local governments collaborated to precisely document the movement of infected people down to the minute. Authorities sought testimony, watched closed-circuit television, investigated smartphone GPS data and more, publicizing the so-called moving histories of Covid-19 patients. All local governments share information through websites, text messages, and media. Companies have developed apps that allow users to visualize the information. Koreans can now learn where infected people went, when they were there, and how they got there. If someone learns they might have been exposed, they can quickly visit a doctor and begin self-quarantine if they have similar symptoms.
On February 4, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took advantage of the post-MERS reform and authorized an unlicensed Covid-19 test; the government went on to test an extraordinary number of people. By February 26, Korea had tested 46,127 cases, while by that point, Japan had tested just 1,846 cases and the United States only 426. Tests still remain hard to come by in the United States, despite the Trump administration’s repeated suggestions that widespread testing is imminent.
There are few countries as technologically advanced as South Korea that are able to adopt this approach without a wide spread lockdown. And it helped that they allowed the use of an unapproved tests whereas in the USA the CDC blocked the use of independent tests which has lead to their current deplorable state of testing.
Following the end of the MERS outbreak, South Korea enacted a new law in 2016 that allows laboratories to use unapproved in-vitro diagnostic kits in the case of a public health emergency.
“Testing is absolutely critical with a fast-travelling virus like this,” says Kang. “We have tested over 350,000 cases so far – some patients are tested many times before they are released, so we can say they are fully cured. Altogether, we’re talking about one out of 145 or one out of 150 people having been tested so far.”