Korea is one of the few countries that have achieved a measure of stability in the battle against Covid-19, which has claimed over 2.5million lives across the globe. In this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, the South Korean Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Lee In-Tae, tells the story of how his country has been able to flatten the curve of Coronavirus. Excerpts:
South Korea is presently showing a flattened curve in the spread of Covid-19. What is the situation report in your country and how did you arrive at your current station?
As you mentioned, there has been some success in Korea’s efforts to curb the spread. The increase in number of new COVID-19 cases has stabilised, and the number of people recovering from the disease continues to exceed the number of newly confirmed cases.
Early this year, Korea was among the countries that was most affected by the pandemic. But now Korea is one of the few countries in the world that is considered to have brought the disease under control.
So, how did you achieve this?
I believe the Korean government’s “quick and pre-emptive” response from the early stage was crucial. The strategy includes robust testing and contract tracing, which enabled timely treatment alongside isolation. It can be summarised as “Three Ts: test, trace, and treatment.”
Among the three Ts, testing played the key role. The government ensured sufficient emergency supply of diagnostic kits to enable massive tests in the early outbreak by granting extraordinarily quick approval for newly developed COVID-19 test kits, which normally takes about a year.
As a result, Korean medical companies are now producing quality diagnostic kits and responding to high global demand. South Korea has shipped more than a million test kits to the world including to the United States.
Full transparency of real-time information has also played a pivotal role in raising awareness of the public and to bring active cooperation from the people with regards to government’s preventive measures such as social distancing and self-isolation. It also enabled people to avoid panic buying, as they trusted the government.
In addition, the medical community came up with innovative methods such as drive-through and walk-in test stations that helped reduce the time of testing and at the same time protect health workers from potential infection. As a result, Korea ramped up its testing capacity to about 20,000 tests per day.
I am aware that despite the success of Korean government’s efforts, some have raised privacy concerns over the government’s active tracing methods. However, Korean domestic law provides clear and sufficient legal grounds for the government of Korea to take certain measures, when conducting epidemiological investigations, such as collecting information related to confirmed cases or disclosing information about the routes of patients.
Also, the Korean people have shown a high level of civic awareness and been willing to support the government’s policy for the sake of a greater cause in fighting a global pandemic.
It’s also notable that South Korea did not impose mandatory lockdown or restriction of travel.
As one of the most vibrant democracies in the world, Korean people cherish the principles of openness and transparency. As a democratically elected Government, “respecting the people’s basic rights,” has always been a central philosophy, which also applies to the freedom of movement in response to COVID-19.
The idea of mandatory blockade would have been contrary to such principles and that is why my country did not impose one.
Korea has also been consistent in stressing the need for essential economic exchanges for the rapid recovery of the world economy. The government is providing special entry procedures for business people.
Curiously, South Korea held a successful general election, amid COVID-19. How was this possible?
As I mentioned, Korea is one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. I believe the elections again demonstrated the value the Korean people place in our democracy as the turnout rated 66.2 per cent, the highest for general election in 28 years.
At the same time, people adhered to every word of government guidelines to prevent the risk of COVID-19. At the polling stations, people maintained three-foot intervals, wearing masks. The government supplied gloves and carried out temperature screening before entering.
The government also came up with measures to allow voting for the people, who were quarantined or under self-isolation. Specific voting places and time were set up for them so that they would avoid contacting others. This shows how much the government cares about securing the voting rights of the Korean people.
There remained some risks since the elections entailed unavoidable contacts and gathering of people. We remain optimistic as the first week after the election passed smoothly with single-or low-double digit of new confirmed cases. Yet the government remains vigilant and is trying its best to ensure that there are no loopholes in the nationwide efforts to prevent COVID-19.
Is there any lesson the South Korea can share with the world?
Korea was also in a difficult situation, recording a high number of confirmed cases for several weeks. But the government and the people altogether have wisely dealt with the crisis. I think I’ve already detailed out the government‘s roles and strategy, so this time, I would like to emphasise the role of the Korean public as the main body to fight the pandemic.
Korea has shown that voluntary and active participation of the people can enable effective response to curb the spread of COVID-19 without any lockdown or curfew. Even the most perfect guidelines will not work if the people refuse to cooperate.
Every word from health advisory needs to be completed by deed: washing hands, maintaining physical distance, reporting and self-isolating based on awareness of contact or suspected symptoms, cooperation with the health authorities, etc.
As COVID-19 is a pandemic, solidarity and cooperation is essential. As Korean Ambassador, I will always be open to sharing knowledge about Korea’s health system, experiences and know-hows we have learned while joining global efforts to fight this disease.
How are you cooperating with Nigeria?
As the Korean government is sharing its experiences and know-hows gained during the response to the COVID-19 with friends and partners around the world, I am communicating with relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Special Duties, and Ministry of FCT.
Korean doctors are actively engaging with the world through tele-conferences with medical staff and doctors in other nations. I’m ready to arrange one between Korean and Nigerian doctors so that they can share useful information and experiences.
I am also discussing with my colleagues in Seoul to figure out possible ways to support Nigeria’s fight against COVID-19 in light of the need for test kits and other necessary equipment.
I’m pleased to inform that the government of the Republic of Korea will make a contribution of the total of half a million US dollars for Nigerian’s COVID-19 response through the United Nations channel.
Korean companies in Nigeria are also pursuing CSR (Company Social Responsibility) activities by supporting the purchase of necessary items such as diagnostic kits.
As Korea and Nigeria have maintained and are building up longstanding friendship and partnership, I would like to express Korean people’s solidarity with Nigerians. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Thus, we will keep fighting together and Korea will continue to support Nigeria’s efforts. The virus cannot beat the human race. Together, we will surely overcome this challenge.