n a previous blog post, I covered the basics of CoronaVirus, how to prevent getting it, what measures South Korea is taking, and why I think it’s safe to travel to Seoul.
Lots have changed since last week. It looks like we are having a significant surge in infected people here in Korea. But I still think the same – South Korea is safer to live and travel than most of the world right now. Why?
- Korean Government is extra transparent about the spread of the virus. There are two daily briefings by the Health Ministry and Korean CDC.
- All critical cases are taken care of, with more hospital facilities added daily to accommodate severe and critical cases.
- As of March 1, Korea has tested for coronavirus over 100,000 people, that’s in multitudes more than any other country in the world right now except China.
- Everybody is covered – Koreans with or without health insurance, ex-pat working and living in Korea, illegal immigrants as well with the assurance they will not be reported if they seek health care.
- Testing is FREE, hospitalization and medical care in case you’ve got the virus is FREE
- Koreans who had to be self-quarantined are getting care pack from the local Government with all needed to survive home – essential food supply, protective masks, disinfectants, toothpaste.
- I can continue, but that should be enough to convince you how well the situation is handled here.
I will be doing daily updates on the situation with CoronaVirus here in South Korea with the latest and most significant developments. Read on!
March 14, Saturday
Saturdays have been so depressing for me since COVID19 in Korea. Usually, I use the weekend to go out and explore, but since the COVID19 outbreak, I feel I don’t want to expose myself that much. My roommates and I try to distance ourselves from others as much as possible. This has been proved to be very useful in staying away from Covid19. Today we rented SOCAR and went to see the ocean at a random place close to Incheon Airport. It was super nice to be out and enjoy the fresh air by the sea. We decided to go to check Incheon Airport. Usually, it’s super busy and may not be the right place to be when a virus strikes, but we know it will be empty as most of the flights from and to South Korea have been canceled. I have never seen the airport empty like that, and it was scary.
On a bit positive note, the newly confirmed cases for COVID19 in South Korea continue to drop as more and more patients are recovering. Korea is quite conservative when it comes to the time needed for recovery, so that’s the reason, so few of the infected people are reported recovered. The daily reports are even more detailed, adding epidemiological links and information about specific clusters.
Amendment in the privacy law and how private information is disclosed to the public to report the whereabouts of infected patients is good news too. Local governments have been disclosing way too much information about locations, nationality, and work of infected patients. This is done for the common good but sometimes violates privacy, and people can be easily identified and bullied for having the virus.
Besides being proactive in mitigating the outbreak, Korea is also looking into the future. The city of Seoul announced its Institute of Technology is holding a “Mask Tech Contest” to cope with the face mask shortage. With the total prize of ₩200M ($165K), foreign companies and individuals are also welcomed to join. The announcement is in 5 languages (English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic), and there are two well-defined challenges.
March 13, Friday
Some good news coming from Seoul, for the first time since the outbreak, more people have recovered than the number of newly infected with COVID19. I think the intensive testing and constant search to identify new possible pots of the outbreak is paying off.
A significant concern is how the Korean economy will be affected by the COVID19 outbreak. Korea is making lots of trade with China for raw materials and manufacturing parts, so it’s normal; it will be dependent on how good China is recovering. Being an export-oriented economy, Korea will suffer even more for the sluggish world economy.
It’s worrying to see how fast the virus is spreading in Europe. In the last couple of weeks, Korea was leading in the number of newly reported cases. That was mostly due to the Shincheonji cluster (90% of all reported cases are through the cult members). People here have seen how committed and consistent the government is in tackling the outbreak, so even when the daily infected people were in 4 digits, people kept it calm and followed the KCDC recommendations for preventing further spread. Sadly, Europe and the USA had more time to prepare, but that’s not the case. The French president Macron called Korean president Moon Jae-in and talked about how transparent Korea is in the fight against Covid19. I think the Korean model is better suited for democracies than what China did. The only problem is you have to start early and have enough money and tests for the measures to work.
As I mentioned, the earlier Korean government is putting lots of effort into dealing with the N95 mask shortage. For now, two protective masks a week can be purchased from local drug stores. For foreigners living long term in Korea, the mask allowance is also available, but you need your ARC (alien registration card) and health security book ( 건강보험증). I probably got the health security book two years ago when I started paying for it here in Korea but didn’t know I will ever need it. Most Koreans haven’t used it for long as well, as everything is digitalized these days. I had to get an issue one today, and it was so easy to get it!
March 12, Thursday
The World Health Organization (WHO) finally announced COVID-19 is considered pandemic after the novel coronavirus spreads to over 120 countries. This sends shockwaves to global financial markets. Currently, over 120,000 people are infected, including seven reported cases in my beloved Bulgaria (1st dead in Sofia registered today).
A study conducted recently shows that coronavirus could be detected in aerosols up to 3 hours post aerosolization, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. That’s not good news and maybe proof the virus is capable of spreading intensively in public transport and busy public places.
What proves essential is to cut community spread by identifying clusters, testing as fast as possible, quarantining exposed people, and preventing the spread through their families or social interactions. Curious to see how this will play and how capable South Korea is in identifying and stopping coronavirus spread. A new report indicates if the infection clusters in Seoul and Sejong Government Complex happen to increase, Seoul hospitals are not ready for it.
Travelers from France, Germany, Spain, Britain, and the Netherlands will be required to get fever checks and submit papers on their health condition, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). It’s not clear what kind of health documents are requested from the travelers from these countries, but it’s a fact that very few people were able to do tests in their own countries.
I’ve got interviewed for Капитал about how Korea is managing the coronavirus outbreak, and I think the article turned out to be very informative. Have a look and let me know if you have any questions!
March 11, Wednesday
Korea added 242 new cases, and five further deaths were registered, totaling 63 (0.81%). The number of confirmed COVID19 cases stands at 7,750. South Korea is now 4th in infected cases, being surpassed by Italy with 10,149 cases and Iran with 9,000. What makes a big difference with the countries mentioned above is that Korea continues to do around 15,000 daily tests, and most probably, numbers are close to the real number of people affected by the CoronaVirus.
It looks like South Korea can be on edge again with two new coronavirus clusters emerging. The latest one at a call center in the Guro area. Concerns are the area is bustling and densely populated with office and residential areas. The Government is also worried about the fact that people working in this and some other 400 call centers commute for work from different regions of the Seoul city metropolitan area. This puts at risk a vast number of people. The officials suggested places with high public concentration as fitness clubs, karaoke places, PC rooms to suspend operations, but that’s likely to happen as the livelihood of many small wonders will be at stake.
Another emerging cluster is registered at Sejong city at the Government Complex. Worries are further spread of the virus that can hinder the normal operations of some government offices there.
March 10, Tuesday
I’m happy to see that the number of cases in South Korea is decreasing by magnitude. Today we witness the lowest number in cases, and it’s proof the efforts of the Government, health institutions, and the public are paying off. What makes South Korean approach unique is that unlike China and Italy, where governments are locking down vast provinces or the whole country, Korea used different tactics. Test as early as much as possible, identify infection clusters, track everybody that was in contact with that cluster, but the severe cases under intensive medical care, the rest – quarantine home, or in government sanatoriums. Another leg of the successful fight with the virus that’s unique to Korea and should be a model for every democracy in the world that might be affected by the coronavirus is transparency. The Government is giving daily briefings to the public and providing clear and valuable information in both Korean and English. It’s essential for Korean society to feel it’s being taken care of and being updated continuously, and that’s what is happening here.
Even though the Daegu and Shincheonji cluster looks to be under control, a new one has emerged today in Seoul. Over 60 people in a call center in Guru, one of the areas with a high concentration of offices, have been tested positive for COVID19. The institutions are taking swift action to locate, test, and quarantine everybody who might be in contact with the reported cases. A lot of buildings here in Korea are mixed-use, and that’s the case with the call center building – lower levels are offices, and the top is residential. The whole building is under quarantine, but before locking it down, they are testing both office workers and residents. What’s curious is they’ve set up a mobile testing facility deployed just in front of the building, making sure tests are performed safely and without the need to move around people that might be infected. Still, it’s quite worrisome as the call center workers come from many different districts in Seoul, even surrounding satellite cities.
In the act of friendship and good neighbourship, China announced it would export masks and medical protective suits to Korea. The first batch of protective masks will arrive on March 12 and some more to follow later next week. It’s definitely of help as daily production of protective masks in Korea is not enough to meet the local demand. The problem with the domestic manufacturing of N95 protective masks is that the special protective filters are made in China. A local company, Colon Industries, produces MB filters, but for more sensitive medical usage like hemodialysis announced it would provide MB filters for free to help meet the local demand for protective masks.
Business Insider published a fascinating analysis providing data on how many COVID-19 tests per capita some countries have done so far. South Korea is leading with 3,692 tests per million people, where Japan has done 66, and the USA only 5. The reason Korea can produce and conduct so many tests (as of today over 220,000) is legislation adopted in 2015 after the MERS outbreak, allowing fast track approval for viral testing kits. New tests can be approved in days without compromising the quality and outcome. Currently, there are more than seven different COVID-19 tests approved for use in South Korea. Some test results can be produced in 3 to 6 hours. A newly developed test kit for home testing will be able to deliver results in 20-30 min.
March 9, Monday
The significant development of COVID-19 is that numbers of newly infected are dropping significantly.
Today the government and local health officials in South Korea hold a briefing for foreign correspondents with some beneficial information about the current status of COVID-19 outbreak and Korea’s response to it.
The basic facts about South Korea response:
- At least 10,000 tests have been conducted each day
- The situation is steadily coming into success with Shincheonji, 89% of the cases being confined to Daegu and Gyeongsanbukdo Province. 95% of the cases are linked to Shincheonji
- The outbreak is mainly due to the spread of the virus in a single cluster in a specific region
Korea is developing a new system for responding to infectious diseases. The existing systems required locking down particular areas and isolating the infected victims. That approach has modest effects and severe drawbacks, the major one is violating the principles of democracy and active public participation. Korea values globalization and pluralistic society. Plus, it was unfortunate that the outbreak happened in Daegu, predominantly with conservative political views and lots of supporters of previous president Park, currently being imprisoned. The Liberal Government had limited options and probably severe problems with the upcoming elections if a lockdown of conservative Daegu was reinforced.
For this reason, Korea adapted a different model for responding to infectious diseases. They call it the Dynamic response system for open democratic societies. It’s built around two core values: to engage public participation through openness and transparency. The second pillar is to use cutting edge technology and creative thinking to develop new and effective means of response.
Korea Contagious Disease Prevention System
- Information is disclosed transparently and rapidly. Government bodies provide accurate information to help citizens stay safe. The travel history of infected patients is made public. Official briefings are held twice a day. This creates trust in the Government and the measures taken.
- Open democracy and community spirit, where citizen’s volunteer participation aids the prevention measures.
- Hygienic measures like washing hands, protective masks as well as social distancing might have the same effect as a physical lockdown. The result is lowering the intrusion in citizen’s daily life imposed by mandatory lockdowns.
- The Government covers the cost for community awareness, testing, and curing the infection. The Government is reimbursing medical facilities for losses due to imposed quarantines.
- Use for creative solutions and advanced technology.
World-class best practices to fight COVID-19
- Drive-thru testing stations
- Epidemiologic investigations supported by GPS data
- Conducting more tests and faster than any other country in the world, capable of processing 15,000 diagnostic tests a day. If a medical doctor has a suspicion of COVID-19, there are no restrictions for conducting the test. Testing is free of charge.
- The extensive testing secures a way to identify patients early enough to fend against the further spread.
- A large number of confirmed cases serve to validate the efforts of combating COVID-19 and minimizing the damages.
- Highly trained medical professionals and well organized and funded medical institutions
- Ban of entry from Hubei province
- DDUR system checking travel history of people coming from China, Italy, Iran.
- Epidemiological investigation of every discovered case – monitor and disclose the whereabouts of the patient via GPS from cell phones, CCTV. Finding the people the infected have been in contact with and imposing self-quarantine and penalties if they violate it.
- Early screening to confirm patients in the early stages, and this is a huge focus.
- Medical centers dedicated to COVID19. Established local centers for COVID19 diagnostics so local emergency rooms and hospitals are not being quarantined.
March 6, Friday
It looks like the coronavirus cases per day in Korea are going down, and that’s excellent news. The officials from CDC stated earlier this week they expect the numbers to go down as most cases reported so far were from the highly infected Shincheonji cult cluster. After conducting the testing of the cult members, finally more tests can be done for people with showing symptoms outside of the cluster concentration area. The efforts are paying off and the number of confirmed cases today is just 309. That’s four times less than the reported cases in Iran and three times less than Italy.
The drive-thru testing stations prove to be very useful in helping the timely and less risky testing. The capacity of tests that Korea can perform a day is growing to 13,000, that’s way more than any other nation but China.
It looks like there’s another coronavirus cluster in development in South Korea, and this time the connecting link is Zumba. A couple of weeks ago, there was a Zumba trainers workshop, and people attending the meeting seem to get infected. That explains some of the small pockets of infection through the Zumba clubs in small communities.
What made Koreans angry today is the travel ban that Japan announced today. Anybody visiting Japan from South Korea will be put into 14 days of mandatory quarantine. The visa waiver for South Koreans is not in effect anymore, and also previously issued visas are canceled. People in South Korea think Abe’s Government is overreacting and using the coronavirus to do additional harm to Korea. Most likely Korea will respond with travel restrictions as well, more political move for now as the Japanese coronavirus numbers are not there yet. Honestly, I’m sure there are more cases in Japan than reported. Last night I chatted with a friend that lives in Hokkaido, and he told me that coronavirus is spreading fast there.
The problem with mask supply persists. Korean Government banned protective mask exports, and over 80% of mask production will be distributed via drug stores (2 masks a week a person).
One of the most commented developments here in Korea today is that the city of Daegu did not accept the $10M donation of Shincheonji, claiming the cult better cooperate with the authorities in testing every single cult member.
The Government proposed 11.7 trillion won worth of supplementary budget for better disease control, to help small merchants & SMEs, promote consumption & support job seekers, All money will be spent to help local economies affected by COVID-19 outbreak.
March 5, Thursday
Finally, the number of daily reported infections with the coronavirus is in decline. Still, we surpassed 6000 infected, but most of them are in Daegu and the area around it.
More and more countries are banning traveling from South Korea; the most recent one is Australia. It’s strange they banned travelers from Korea and Iran, but not from Italy. To me, that’s hypocrisy as it’s evident that in Italy, there are way more deaths from COVID19 and the relatively lower numbers of reported cases there. Wonder what would happen when all the rest get to the numbers of Korea, and that would happen in a week or two.
Korean Government and the City of Seoul are pushing hard the so-called Social distancing campaign. Companies are following suit, allowing workers to work from home. That’s a totally new development for South Korea, and I’m happy to see this rollout. I think work in Korea will be changed forever, and only a virus can do that.
March 4, Wednesday
A total of 809 new cases reported today, totaling to 5,621 cases so far.
Some reports show connections between the spread of the coronavirus and dirty banknotes. I think that’s not so much valid for South Korea as it’s heavily dependent on credit card and cashless payments, but that might be a serious case in Japan.
As masks are still super hard to get, good news came from China. The city of Incheon, during the early days of the Wuhan Outbreak, decided to donate 20,000 protective masks to one of their sister cities in China. This week Incheon, in the middle of the virus outbreak and amidst a maks availability crisis, got a thank you note form that same sister city along with 200,000 masks. Chinese were returning the favor, just 10-fold.
Lots of conservatives and Christian churches here in Korea do not like what the Korean Government is doing in response to the virus outbreak. They are angry at the administration of Mun Jae-in for not entirely blocking Chinese tourists from day one and let people from other provinces, but Wuhan travel to Korea.
To make the political situation even worse, the ex-president Park, conservative, sent a letter from the prison to her supporters, blaming the Government about their efforts to cope with the virus outbreak. Park is back into politics and trying to consolidate the conservatives before the elections. A bit of background: Park is from Daegu, the city most affected by the virus. Traditionally Daegu is a conservative stronghold. Was it coexistence the Shincheonji cult leader wore at his controversial press conference limited edition clock given by president Park, I don’t think so. This letter also comes at a very turbulent time.
March 3, Tuesday
The day with most reported positive tests: 974, just 6 cases shy of the depressing 1000 a day.
Korean President Moon Jae-in apologized for not being able to provide steady supply of protective masks to the general public. He also declared war on COVID19 and made all government agencies related to the issue in 24/7 mode. Korean government added an extra budget to fight the virus outbreak, making it up to $25 billion.
Interesting observation from today is how the demographics of virus infected in Korea is way different than China. The reason so many women in their 20s and 30s are infected is because of the Shincheonji cult outbreak. Turns out the cult is targeting mostly young women. During the cult gatherings men and women stay separately, so that might have been another reason for the predominance of female cases.
Vietnam, Turkey, Italy and the Czech Republic said they will stop flight services on routes to South Korea from Thursday, but I expect more countries to follow suite. It’s really sad to see this happen, but that’s the price South Korea is paying for being transparent and showing the rest of the world how democracy works in time of virus outbreak. Korean Air has very well maintained information page on entry restrictions by country. Check this out if you plan to travel from or to South Korea.
March 2, Monday
What a day. It looks like Korea’s battle with CoronaVirus is far from over. Hospitals in Daegu are over-following, and medical staff is working around the clock to take care of the infected. Hospitals in Gwangju have agreed to take patients from hardly affected Daegu. That’s groundbreaking as in Korea, these two cities have always been political rivals.
This morning there were fewer cases reported due to the change in way cases are counted by Korean’s Center for Disease Control. From today on, at 9 AM will be announced only cases up to midnight. The rest will be announced at the briefing at 4 PM. Up till now, fewer cases appeared in the afternoon announcement, but that will change.
Two additional detection kits for urgent diagnosis of the novel coronavirus, developed by domestic diagnostics companies, were announced. That means Korean will now have an even higher capacity for testing if needed.
Protective masks are one sale in Post offices throughout the country, and the good news is they cost only ₩1000. Unfortunately, there’s a limit of 5 per person, but the authorities say they will be available daily.
Maybe the news of the day was the press conference of Shincheonji cult founder, Lee Man-hee. It was apparent the older man was overwhelmed and read a message of apology with a trembling voice. He bowed on the floor to tender his apology, but I don’t think this will be enough for the angry Korean public. The 88-year-old founder of the Shincheonji Church faces charges over hampering efforts in containing the spread.
What made this event even more controversial was that the cult leader was spotted wearing a special-edition clock signed by the conservative Korean ex-president Park Geun-Hye, fueling speculations of a possible relationship with the previous presidential office.
As of today, over 78 countries are restricting entry from South Korea.
March 1, Sunday
There have been 586 new COVID-19 cases in South Korea today. Four people died. Most of the cases are still concentrated in Daegu. With today’s cases, the total is now 3,736.
One of the unfortunate events of the day is that a month and a half old baby was diagnosed with coronavirus, after his father, and later mother got infected. The father of the baby is a Shincheonji Church member.
As you can see in the world reports about the spread of the COVID-19, Korea has a relatively lower death toll compared to Iran and Italy. The lower death numbers in South Korea can be explained with two things – early testing and detecting problematic cases (higher chance for appropriate medical measures) and successful medical treatment of hospitalized patients.
``Protective Mask is required to enter the VR experience room at Namsan Tower``
February 29, Saturday
There were over 600 cases reported in the morning, and some with the cases from 5 PM, the newly tested positive with COVID19 are 813. That’s by far the most significant daily number so far. One more death was reported making it to 17. Over 12,000 people are being tested, most of them from the Daegu and Gyeongbukdo region.
The Government obtained a full list with over 200,000 members of the controversial Sincheonji Christian cult, responsible for over 80% of the cases in South Korea. Today 3381 of the members of the cult are with COVID19 symptoms and are being tested.
There were reports from previous days about a woman in Japan that got reinfected with the virus. I thought it might be some mistake, but I was a bit scared when I read the news that a woman from South Korea that was declared clear from the virus just a week ago developed the symptoms again and tested positive. Scientists need to study more what might be causing that and how to make sure it’s not widespread.
Lots of Korean universities are announcing they will delay the start of the academic year. Seoul National University, Ewha Womans University and Yonsei will have online courses for the first two weeks of March. Yonsei emailed international students asking them not to visit the International Office but just email and call them. Also, they are asking for 14-day self-quarantine upon arrival, and that’s not just for Chinese students. No public facilities like libraries or gyms can be used during this period.
The main issues that have to be resolved and the Korean Government is struggling to make it happen is the hysteria with the protection masks and getting the situation in Daegu under control. Protective masks are still hard to buy and are quite expensive. There were some reports the Government supplied some stores. Huge crowds gathered to line up for masks. A controversial hand stamping was introduced to ensure you can get in line only once. I think it’s not safe, as this stamp will touch the skin of hundreds of thousands of people. The risk is minimal, but still, there are smarter ways to verify that.
Korean army got involved and started sanitizing the streets of Daegu. Korean companies and the public have been very supportive and donating money. Including K-Pop and movie celebrities, big companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, KIA, SK.
People under self-quarantine have reported they got delivered care packages with food supply, masks, and sanitizers. Those who might suffer financial issues will be compensated for the 14-day homestay. (up to $1,500 for 5-member family)
February 28, Friday
Five hundred seventeen new cases announced mostly in Daegu and related to the Sincheonju cult. The Korean Government is doing intensive testing of all cult members with showing symptoms. Logically the confirmed cases are growing exponentially.
People in South Korea are furious at the Shincheonji cult as they refuse to cooperate and systematically hide information from the officials. The latest scandal revealed they did not report some 70,000 trainees who are about to become cult members.
Hospitals in Daegu are short of hospital beds. It’s that serious. People with more severe cases of COVID19 might be transported to hospitals in other cities. Infection cases that are not very severe are asked to self-quarantine home and report daily to the hospital and local Government.
Due to the spread of COVID19 in Daegu and rising numbers of infected lots of countries have raised the security measures and may quarantine travelers from South Korea. Some states have banned incoming travelers from South Korea altogether.
ABC News reported that Korea had tested a total of 66,652 people for the COVID-19 as of 4 PM, whereas Japan had stated administering roughly 1,890 tests and the U.S. only 445. As some people summarised the situation:
China: Lock them up!
South Korea: Test everyone!
Japan: Don’t ask, don’t tell
So much innovation is happening when it comes to public safety. One excellent example is the deployment of drive-thru COVID19 testing stations. You can drive by car and be tested without leaving it. That’s especially convenient for people that have been in contact with infected but haven’t developed any symptoms yet.
Shopping online has always been the predominant way Koreans buy stuff, but I can see lots of people reporting going to local markets to buy food from small business owners and old grandpas and grandmas.
500 doctors from private hospitals went down to Daegu to volunteer. Even one of the party leaders, opposing the Korean Government, doctor himself, went down together with his wife (also medical doctor) to help out the medical staff in Daegu.
Korean Government approved a new bill to make sure there is a steady supply of medical products. All mask producers are forced by law to sell 80% of their production on the local market to make sure nothing is lacking.
Seoul city even started doing daily briefings in English to cater to the expat community.
Small stores got 20 to 40% of their rent for the next three months.
Illegal immigrants got a pardon and can get medical service free of charge without risking being reported to Immigration services.
The Novel Coronavirus
Corona Virus or COVID-19 is a severe acute respiratory syndrome first discovered in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. It’s also referred to as 2019-nCoV, Wuhan Coronavirus, or ‘Coronavirus.’ There are 7 coronaviruses known so far, and the common cold is one of them. Three of the coronaviruses are very dangerous – SARS, MERS, and the current one SARS-Cov-2, previously named 2019-nCoV. The virus spreads throughout the respiratory system. It causes lung infection resulting in pneumonia.
What makes the new coronavirus so dangerous is not how deadly it is, but how fast it spreads. By February 20, more people died from COVID-19 than SARS. The mortality rate so far is unknown, but the official statistics that come from China show 2-3%. That’s way better than SARS, who had a 10% mortality rate.
The bad news about CoronaVirus is that it can spread from person to person. There is evidence now people in the incubation period can actually spread the virus. What makes it even more problematic is people might have no symptoms and still carry the virus and spread it.
- Shortness of breath
The symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days after exposure.