The spread of Covid-19

I would say the readiness and rapid response were the keys to success for South Korea. South Koreans are well known to react expediently when confronted with crisis. Most of all, Korea had already developed very advanced medical system and services, and public in general got used to confronting health threats coming from overseas or a neighboring region, like micro dust and yellow dust requiring usage of face masks. Moreover, Koreans learned valuable lessons from previous epidemics like SARS and MERS. A whole set of measures deployed rapidly by the government and public’s active compliance made the difference. In particular, aggressive tracking & monitoring system as well as extraordinary number of testing done in a short time were crucial.

No doubt, South Korea drew valuable lessons from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. Since 2016 when it ended, the government took drastic measures to upgrade hospitals to have greater capacity to deal with such infectious diseases. Korean hospitals were required to increase the number of patients’ rooms, intensive care wards, emergency rooms, and isolation rooms. Each hospital was asked to set up units to combat new infectious diseases and formulate the necessary protocols. Also, regulations were revised to allow speedy authorization procedure for testing kits, when enabled timely production and supply of testing kits this time around to combat Covid-19. Another valuable lesson learned from MERS was that the government’s transparency and information sharing to the public was deemed critical, hence this time regarding Covid-19, the government has come up with virtually a real time information sharing and proactive briefings to the public which greatly helped informing the people to tackle the problem.

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) means technological convergence of ICT with other industries. In fighting Corvid-19, basically, South Korea applied a multitude of convergence technologies in three areas: ① dissemination of information on current situation and preventive measures ② diagnosis and management through classification of health status ③ discovery & development of cures. Specifically, to cite a few examples, Korea Spatial Information & Community Co. (KSIC) uses geographic information system (GIS) to track confirmed patients’ movement and provide overall situation map regarding Corvid-19. And AI platform ‘Clova’ provides voicebot service of calling up those who need to be monitored twice a day, checking their body temperature, respiratory conditions, etc., and e-mailing the results immediately to the health centres. Also using AI, Korea was able to drastically curtail time for developing testing kits (less than 2 weeks) and interpreting X-rays (less than 3 seconds).

Even with all the technology and advanced system in place, and innovative measures that were newly used this time around like ‘drive through testing’ and ‘work through testing’ (using insulated booth for testing, without coming into contact with people being tested), without voluntary compliance and cooperation of the people, South Korea would not have succeeded in flattening the curve fast.

The sum up, I think there were 4 success factors: speed, intensity, transparency, and cooperation; ‘speed’ is about acting promptly and immediately circulating and sharing information; ‘intensity’ is about how thoroughly and meticulously all those responsible worked, and how a wide-ranging resources and means were put to use; transparency is government’s openness and credibility, and proactive outreach to the public in terms of sharing the info; lastly, ‘cooperation’ is active compliance and voluntarism on the part of the public.

The biggest challenges were faced at the early stage of the outbreak of cases, and they were a failure to properly account for suspected cases of certain groups of people like a very large church congregation who were infected heavily due to the nature of their activities, leading to the surge in cases in a particular city/region in South Korea; the second instance was a shortage of face masks which caused much confusion and inconvenience to the public.

South Koreans have access to a universal healthcare system, although a significant portion of healthcare is privately funded. It is funded by a compulsory National Health Insurance Scheme that covers 97% of the population. Foreign nationals also enjoy access to universal healthcare. National health insurance was introduced in 1977, and universal coverage was finally achieved in 1989. In 2015 South Korea ranked first in the OECD for healthcare access. It has 12.77 hospital beds per 1,000 persons, well above OECD countries’ average of 5, and it ranks 2nd after Japan with 13.1 beds (2017).

Government’s effective and persistent intervention in the market of health and medical care was crucial for the universal coverage and high quality services. Among many successes of South Korean government during the course of national development, its role in public health stands out in particular. Highly disciplined, merit-based bureaucracy focused on serving public interests with vigor, I think made the difference.

There is a saying in Korea that “crisis is opportunity.” Korean learned to come together in the times of national crisis. In the West, there is also a saying that goes “desperate times call for desperate measures.” Covid-19 feels like a hammer blow on our heads; we need to come to grips with the stark reality that humans are all vulnerable and should not be complacent against the forces the nature can unleash when it is disrupted by humans. So this is the time for reality check, reckoning of the most basic values that our humanity should adhere to. To get all the people on board, a strong social bond or social capital is required and this could be achieved successfully if only the government works closely with the people and earn their trust. This time again, to combat Covid-19, Korean people came on board again, helping and working with the government.

Covid-19 in Africa

The biggest worry is people sticking to old habits, not realizing the unique perils of Covid-19, and also the situation of the poor who cannot avoid living in small, crowded space without proper hygienic facilities. South Africa has arguably the most advanced hospitals and medical system in Africa but the challenge is how to meet the needs of a large segment of population who are poor, and especially those living in informal settlements, and also the migrant population.

It is the case of Africa in general but people’s lack of confidence in their government, as well as the frequency in clash between the locals and police or government authorities is also cause for concern. Lack of hospitals, doctors, and medical equipment, low quality of medical services and the difficulty for the majority of the people who are poor to access decent medical care are also great challenges.

Fight against Covid-19 must be waged sternly and head-on, and there is no way of getting around it with expediency. What must be done must be done, and everyone has to follow strict rules of action. In the countries where medical capacity and facilities are lacking, the need for people to exercise caution and take care of themselves in a disciplined manner is all the more necessary. Being realistic, objective and disciplined are the lessons to be learned from South Korea’s experience.

The threat of Covid-19 is such that no country in the world can be complacent about its ability to tackle it. We see confirmed cases surge in all the richest countries. And when it comes to Africa, it may not necessarily be the complacency but actually the clearly limited capability to handle the virus which is most worrisome. Hence African countries should know where they stand in terms of how realistically they can cope with the pandemic. Practising social distancing seems to be the safest measure for prevention. There should be actions plans for right now, short-term, and mid-long terms measures taken, and it would take years and years of continuous efforts to come to a satisfactory states of preparedness.

Economic impact of Covid-19 on South Korea

South Korea is hit hard by the Covid-19 because it curtails so much economic activities and free movement of people. And the impact is global, as it became pandemic. The situation will only get worse with the spread of Covid-19 and global situation but we need to see how it is managed world-wide in coming weeks or months to have clearer idea of actual impact on our economies

South Korea is in the process of taking such measures, and everything is still being reviewed at this stage.

Early last month, in March, the government passed a supplement budget amounting to about $10 billion which includes about $2 billion for small businesses. Efforts to support medium and small businesses and self-employed who were affected by Corvi-19 are being made widely and through multiple channels in South Korea. The measures are implemented through local governments and various public, public-private, private entities, organizations, funds, and special banks. For example, in publicly run market complexes, the municipalities are cutting down the rents, and providing financial support as well as goods such as face masks and hand-sanitizers for shop owners. For medium and small businesses, various financial supports like moratorium on payment of fees and taxes, provision of no or low interest financial loans, business consultation services, etc., are offered. The good thing is that public’s voluntary participation is manifesting in the private sector. Landlords are lowering the rents for their tenants doing business across the nation, which is a rarity in other countries. This is a sign of very strong social capital in South Korea.

Faced with an unprecedented economic shock coming from global contraction in economic activities, the government of Korea has undertaken sweeping measures to shore up and stabilize the economy: on March 20, the government agreed on $60 billion currency swap with the United States in a bid to stabilize the Korean currency. The second emergency economic cabinet meeting presided by the President was held on 24 March to discuss measures to stabilize equity and bond markets, and provide financial assistance to the firm hit hard by the Covid-19. It decided to expand the emergency business relief fund to around $80 billion, and also to implement separate employment support plans like a significant increase in financial assistance for maintaining employees and waiver or postponement of public bills like insurance premiums and utilities fees.

South Korea was hit early by Covid-19 in the second wave after it erupted and spiked in Wuhan, China. While China chose to shut down Wuhan, South Korea did not do so in any parts of the country even when Covid-19 was heavily concentrated in a particular region. It did not ban travel and air-flights, and demonstrated how democracies can effectively handle the virus. For Korea, there were a certain degree of capacity, readiness, and know-how coming from previous experiences in place that did not warrant shut down; The government had to find a right balance between the need to take stringent measures and need to consider people’s livelihood and businesses, and chose to make an all-out efforts to tackle the virus without shutting down the border or economy. What also helped greatly was the voluntarism of the Korean people, everyone coming on board to help one another in times of great difficulty.

Korea is currently receiving so many requests from all over the world to share information on how it has been tackling Covid-19, including the innovative measures that proved so effective. There are also many inquiries from the foreign governments and businesses alike for Korea’s testing kits and other medical equipment, and Korean companies are busy increasing production of these for export. Korea’s President Moon-Jae is receiving so many phone calls from the foreign leaders and took the opportunity of G20 special summit on 26 March to showcase Korean model of response to G20 heads of states. And also requests for grant assistance of testing kits and other items are flowing from developing countries world-wide. I believe now is the time for Korea to do its part and respond in a positive way because all of us are in this together.

Economic impact on Africa

Africa is faced with the perennial challenge of economic development but Covid-19 is unprecedented in terms of how widely, quickly, and seriously it can have negative impact on the world. Thus far, Africa has been spared of devastation coming from the massive surge in Covid-19 cases, as the epicenter has moved from China to Italy, and now to the U.S. and other parts of Europe but not moving to Africa, yet. But even if Africa manages to minimize spread of the virus, it would naturally suffer from the global economic setback.

Even the richest nations are being severely tested and undergoing ordeals that they would never have imagined to be possible. And naturally, Africa should be concerned for the possibility of next big wave of Covid-19 reaching their continent. However, while people need to be cautious and cool-headed, we should not be overly gloomy and pessimistic. Hopefully, medication will be developed in the near future since researchers around the world are racing with time to come up with the cure for Covid-19. Then afterwards, we can expect the vaccination to follow suit.

The world was literally brought down on its knees by the Covid-19. Amid much fanfare about the advent 4th industrial revolution, and how technology has advanced exponentially, humanity is now forced to come to terms with its inherent limitations as everyone is powerlessly locked down in their homes.

But all is not lost. There can still be a silver lining in all of this that is unfolding, which is the opportunity to realize anew, or get back to, the basics of human and economic development. This is the trying times but it can be a golden opportunity to reflect and start afresh, to embark on a ‘new’ path. The lessons to be drawn from South Korea, I believe, is that South Africa and the rest of the continent should move fast, actually faster than many others, and also work much harder to reform, change, and strengthen their capacity. South Korea faced the most serious adversity in 1997 Asian financial crisis, and shockingly, it had to submit itself to IMF bailout. But South Korea was able to graduate swiftly from the bailout in just over a year. Essence of development is just two things: change and speed.

Drawing on the lesson from South Korea, my advice for South Africa and other African countries would be do the three following things: ① prioritize economic principles (don’t over politicize everything and try to de-link politics from economy/business as much as possible) ② place emphasis on human capital and social capital (over financial and material resources) ③ enforce accountability everywhere and for everyone: government, businesses, and ordinary people.

As long as we are in the midst of Covid-19 threat, there is not much a country can do. Economically speaking, this is the time to be defensive, to try best to do damage control. Because economic activities are locked down, consumer demand falls sharply, and so does production. In such circumstances, as all developed economies are doing, expansionary fiscal spending and financial support for the affected sectors or businesses must be enacted. But even for the wealthy countries, such measures have to be temporary and cannot go on indefinitely otherwise the government will soon run out of the means. But for African countries that effectively lack economic means and administrative capacity, the policy options are much more limited.

Hence, for now, the best thing for African countries to tackle Covid-19 first, by practising society distancing, washing their hands frequently and staying hygienic. We must weather the storm before we can all come out and go back to business.

The best thing to do now is to try to get back to normalcy as soon as possible by focusing on fighting Covid-19.