Bringing State Back in: Lessons from South Korea’s fight with coronavirus

By THO Contributor, Ozge Taylan

The coronavirus emergency reminds us of the old but not obsolete discussion in the International Political Economy that has long been dominated by the role of the state not just in the economy but in every field. Pandemic could create a severe economic downturn and social fallout, so how governments perform in their practical management of the crisis?

Europe has been struggling with coronavirus, the situation in the US has completely gone off the rails. Now, U.S. death toll is the highest in the world.[1] In Turkey, numbers are still rising. These are the countries that have failed to start this fight against the coronavirus at the beginning. South Korea is not one of them.


Till now as of 7th April, Korea has tested more than 440,000 people for the virus. As I read and follow that this has been achieved without any harsh lockdowns or restrictions on movement. There is no panic buying and people in Korea feel safe even though the cases have been increasing. What has Korean government done to control the pandemic?
There are two misperceptions related to the Korean case: First, it seems that the first reported case in Korea was way before the US’ first case. However, South Korea and the United States did confirm their first cases of COVID-19 on the same day, Jan. 20, 2020. The second one is that South Korea was ready since she experienced a traumatic experience with MERS. Indeed, Korea’s experience with MERS is significant but her strong health approach, collaboration among local governments and private sector-government cooperation (Samsung improves face mask manufacturing to help combat coronavirus)[2] have made an effective response to the pandemic.
The Government’s policy has been four-fold: testing, tracking, tracing, and treating. The Government at beginning of March restricted the export of face masks till the end of April and since then is really pushing people to wear a mask. Department stores do not let in people who don’t wear a mask at the beginning of the outbreak of the coronavirus. However, as in everywhere in the world, there is shortage in masks. People can get their masks only in post offices or pharmacies. You can only buy them in designated date. The designated date is determined by last digit of your birth year. There is also a website on how many stock of mask they have in store, so they people do not need to wait a long line. Each person has the right to buy 2 masks per week and costs 1,500 Korean won(1,23 USD). Furthermore, companies have developed apps that allow Koreans to visualize the information such as where infected people went, when they were there, and how they got there. If someone learns they might have been exposed, they can quickly visit a doctor and begin self-quarantine if they have similar symptoms.[3]
As well as this systemic scheduling of surveillance of the Government, people’s awareness and cooperation in society make Korean case successful. Self-isolation and social distancing have been immediately implemented by the public. Howard P. Forman, a professor of public health policy at Yale School of Management, explains that  “To an outsider, South Korea has handled an enormous surge in cases very well and seemed to mitigate further spread through forms of … passive social isolation.”[4] (emphasis added)
Furthermore, South Korea has provided transparency to quickly curb infections while minimizing economic disruptions. People think that all these are thanks to the Government regulating the situation effectively. It is not surprising that governments working with the support of large public opinion respond to the pandemic quite quickly and effectively. Yet, wise leadership and administrative capacity to implement solutions are must-haves that shows us that being democratic is not enough, as Yuen Yuen Ang argues[5]. Leaders must see national and global interests beyond their own personal ambitions or beliefs.
A cost-benefit analysis—carried out against the backdrop of current and potential threat perceptions—shapes a national interest-centered response, appropriate to national need, which is then modified through compromises made with others. This is the only way to achieve ‘common interest’ that is now flatten the curve. First national solidarity to include all segments of the society and then solidarity and cooperation in international level have been badly needed rather than populist policies and self-help realism.

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