It's even more striking when I tell you that South Korea and the United States announced their first confirmed cases of Covid-19 just one day apart in January. And by February, South Korea had the largest outbreak in the world outside of China.
But by April the number of new cases were down to single digits, and life in South Korea started to go back to normal — schools even started reopening in May.
But then clusters of infections started to pop up again. More than 100 cases were linked to a nightclub in Seoul.
France24: Today the country is bracing for a second wave of infections. This after new spikes in coronavirus cases linked to Seoul's nightlife, which now threaten the densely populated capital.
Just this week, Korean health officials acknowledged that the country was now in the middle of a second wave
But still there are so many things we can learn from South Korea. How did they control the outbreak without a national lockdown? And what does all of this mean for the country as it goes through the second wave?
I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. And this is "Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction
Paula Hancocks, CNN international correspondent: The government responded very quickly. It was a swift response. There's no doubt about that. And that is what has allowed this country to cope so well with this pandemic.
Gupta: That's my colleague CNN International Correspondent Paula Hancocks, who's based in Seoul. She covers South Korea and has been following the country's Covid-19 response. I spoke to her this week about why the country has been so effective at containing the virus.
Hancocks: So the first case was on January 20. And then just several days later, the government and health officials decided to get some of the biotech companies together. So there's more than 20 of them. They got in a room together and said there is a potential for this to become an epidemic, a pandemic. We need to start thinking about how to test for this.
Now, that was incredibly early compared to many other countries. In fact, there was one company, Seegene, who started working on it, on testing and diagnostic tests, before there had been a single case in South Korea when it was still considered to be a Chinese problem.
Gupta: Paula, why do you think that was, that even before there was a case, they were already working on some of these — these plans? Was this because of lessons that were learned from — from SARS?
Hancocks: South Korea has been through this before. You mentioned SARS. They also had MERS back in 2015. And the response was not great to those particular viruses. South Korea made mistakes. Lives were lost and lessons were definitely learned.
And the lessons they have learned is that you test massively and you test early so you know what you're dealing with so that you can try and contain the virus. Another thing they did learn from MERS was that the privacy laws, as in many other countries, were fairly rigid. So it was difficult to trace. It would take up to 48 hours to try and trace where one particular patient had been. And of course, by that point, that virus has then spread to others.
They've loosened the privacy laws. It was a bipartisan decision in 2015. And it now takes something between 10 and 20 minutes to be able to trace where someone has been because they don't have the strict privacy laws that other countries do.
Gupta: And people are generally OK with that or is there resistance to, you know, kind of being, being tracked in this way, knowing where people are?
Hancocks: I would say for the most part, people are OK with it because they understand the necessity. That is the impression that I have. I come from a Western background. I'm British. And people would balk at this in the UK.
But here in South Korea, because of the experience of MERS, because of the experience of SARS, there is a greater tolerance for this information to be taken.
Gupta: You know, I've spent some time in Korea in the past, but also in China and in Taiwan. And there are places that are sort of, I guess you'd say, mask-wearing cultures. What about in Korea? I'm talking before this pandemic. What was the attitude, if you know, toward masks?
Hancocks: Masks were very much accepted. Unfortunately, one of the main reasons for that is because the air quality over recent years in Korea has been pretty bad. So it had become the norm to wear a mask, an N95, on a day when pollution was particularly high but there was also an expectation that if you were sick, that you would wear a mask, that you wouldn't infect people around you. It just, it was considered rude that you would subject people to your germs.
Gupta: I want to talk about testing a little bit more here. In the beginning, what did testing look like? How widespread was it?
Hancocks: This was one of the main policies of health officials here that testing should be widespread, that it should be free. So very early on, there were thousands of tests being done here when there was barely anything being done in many other countries around the world.
There were very quick test kits that would take six, eight hours before you had an answer. There were drive-through testing screening centers, which, of course, has the added bonus of not having to mix potential patients with the hospital community.
Gupta: Have you been tested?
Hancocks: I have not been tested. I did have to take my 4-year-old to be tested early on in the pandemic. She spiked a fever. So we went to the hospital. Within an hour of arriving, we'd had a health questionnaire. She'd had a chest scan. She had been tested for influenza, for also for Covid-19. We were then sent home.
And eight hours later, we got a text message saying she was negative. It was the smoothest process I have ever seen, and much as I did not want to have to put her through that because it's not a pleasant test, it, it was very reassuring.
Let me talk for a minute about contact tracing
. How does contact tracing work there?
Hancocks: For contact tracing, as soon as an individual tests positive for the virus, they are then put into a hospital, a facility to recover. Instantly, their mobile phone number is taken. Their credit card number. CCTV footage is used, GPS coordinates. All that is put into a system that South Korea has developed over the years. And within 10 to 20 minutes, they have the exact whereabouts of that person for previous days.
Now they, were at pains to say to me that this technology is not complex. The complicated part is the the privacy laws, they don't have to adhere to the tough privacy laws that, for example, health officials in the United States or the United Kingdom might have to. And they say that that is the difference. That is why they're able to, to trace people so quickly.
Gupta: So people who were diagnosed with the virus and going into isolation would likely do so in a hospital or clinic-type setting. People who were quarantined, again, suspicious because they may have come in contact with somebody, were presumably told to go home and quarantine within their own home. Is that right?
Hancocks: It was really the, the confirmed cases that will go into a hospital or would go into a government facility. Self-isolation, if you have an address in, in Seoul or in Korea, you can self-isolate at home.
There have been cases of some individuals breaking the self-isolation, breaking the quarantine. There's one example of an individual who's a private academy tutor. He was at one of the nightclubs in Seoul. He did not come clean about having a job. He said he was unemployed and then went back to the private academy, taught a number of students and infected a number of students.
Now, there is likely to be prosecution against him because he was not open and because he withheld information. And that will be publicized quite heavily by the government. They want people to know that there is accountability for this.
Gupta: That's, that's really extraordinary. They've really tried to enforce this whole process that we're talking about. I mean, it's not perfect, as you're as you're alluding to. But they tried to be pretty, pretty strict about it, it sounds like.
Hancocks: They have. Yes. And South Korea is known for its technology. I mean, they have, they have an app for everything in this country. It's quite remarkable. And they have you know, they have the tracking app. They have the GPS apps. When masks were hard to come by, they had the app to show you which shop nearby you could get your mask in. I mean, the technology has been heavily used here.
Gupta: Paula, how do you best characterize then — you say South Korea wasn't shut down. But I find that these terms are not very binary. It's not very, you know, you're shut down or you're open. What was the situation with businesses, the economy, schools, all that sort of stuff during these last four months?
Hancocks: I'd say probably most of March, when the numbers were pretty bad here in South Korea. Most people I know didn't go out very much. It wasn't a lockdown. There was no mandated, "You must work from home." There was a recommended work from home, from the government. But they left that decision to the individual, to the individual company. But beyond that time, people have adapted.
Gupta: Tell me about the mood right now, though, in Seoul, because you do have this, this celebration of how well things have gone, but then you get these clusters from time to time. What is it like there?
Hancocks: I think most people here in Seoul knew that these clusters were not going well, the KCDC, the Korean CDC believes this is the second wave. And certainly that, that will concern some people. But this is a country that is acutely aware of everything that's happening with this virus, they can't take this level of freedom for granted because they know that, that it could be, it could be walked back, that this, the social distancing, this lax social distancing could go back to strict social distancing. So this is why everyone's watching those numbers so closely.
There will always be these clusters, according to health officials here. The trick for them and the trick for, for businesses is to try and work alongside the threat of the virus. You have to learn to live with the virus.
Gupta: Well, I hope we get to check in with you often, Paula. Thank you so much for your time. I really do think there's a lot of lessons learned. And I can understand why your friends and relatives back in the UK are a little jealous of your living situation right now, considering how well South Korea has handled this whole thing. So thank you.
Hancocks: Absolutely. Thanks, Sanjay. Appreciate it.
Gupta: As I said, there's so much to learn from South Korea. Now keep in mind that it's not a perfect comparison — the United States has now reached a stage in the pandemic that South Korea never did. Here in the United States, a combination of getting our case numbers down, and at the same time increasing the number of contact tracers, could help us do the kind of contact tracing that they're doing over there.
We can't just flip a switch and become South Korea. But one of the most important lessons it's shown us is that we have to be consistently vigilant and careful. And, until there's a vaccine, that's the only way we can really learn to live with the virus.
We'll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.