What South Korea Did Right

This article is part of World War “V”: The COVID-19 Pandemic, a collection of all CNS COVID-19-related articles.

June 1, 2020
Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress

The following is an excerpt from an interview with CNS Expert, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, by Chatham House.

You are a nuclear physicist and an expert in non-proliferation. What made you focus on public policy during the coronavirus pandemic?

I have always been interested in public health and worked on an exciting project during the Obama presidency which was looking at emergency responses to a radiological incident. Working in non-proliferation, you have to convince people that this is a really important issue and, even if incidents are very rare, that doesn’t make planning for a nuclear incident unnecessary. When the COVID-19 crisis happened in January, I knew that the people in power were not taking it as seriously as they should.

What do you mean, not taking it seriously?

I followed the South Korean response very carefully – my wife is Korean. Did you know that South Korea and the United States both discovered their first case of COVID-19 on the same day? The difference in response to the pandemic was incredible. I also noticed that there was a lot of othering – people were saying we can’t have mobile phone tracing like South Korea because we are different from Asians, we care more about our freedom. On the news, the way they talked about it seemed as if they were confusing South Korea with North Korea, which is a dictatorship. There was a lot of ugliness bubbling up.

How did this reflect on policy?

There is a lot that we didn’t know about the virus, but one thing that became clear early in February was that the disease could be spread by asymptomatic people. There was evidence from Asia, but there is a feeling in the US that everything that happens outside the country is irrelevant to the US. In South Korea, they didn’t lock everything down and they started testing aggressively with drive-through testing stations. I think the US could have handled things very differently, especially in terms of testing. The argument is always that South Korea is a much smaller country, and the US is so much bigger. That’s true, but there should have been a much more aggressive testing response early before the number of infections got out of hand.

Because of the exponential increase in infections, it is vastly more difficult to handle contact tracing when you have a high case load.

Continue reading at Chatham House.

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