Expert Speak Health Express
Published on May 02, 2020
Why technology may be the answer: Lessons from South Korea’s COVID19 successes

On February 7, 2020, I messaged a group of friends, most of whom work in government agencies, to ask why the government was not taking any proactive measures against the COVID-19 virus. Given the sheer number of travelers arriving from China and having read about the situation in Wuhan, I urged my friends to do what they could to push for restrictions on the arrival of Chinese passengers. South Korea had 630 COVID-19 cases at that time. Over two months since my conversation with my friends, the number of cases has crossed 10,000 and the death toll is over 240. Overall, South Korea has been relatively successfully in containing the virus, and it is because of building a trusted society with the help of technology.

Fast bureaucracy to the rescue

South Korea is a highly IT-dependent country. Adding to the highly modernised transportation infrastructure, the life of Korean citizens cannot be recounted without the presence of strong domestic IT companies and their products such as Naver, Kakao, Coupang, Korean version of Google, Whatsapp and Amazon. The government is also IT dependent. The word bureaucracy is often associated with words like slow, redundant, complex or inefficient. Over the last 30 years, Korea has mostly digitised its administrative work so that people can easily access any governmental services through websites and other electronic means. This has made fast bureaucracy possible in South Korea, which also helped it act effectively against COVID-19.

The central and regional government websites provided all the needed information on COVID-19, with constant updates on the number of cases and patients by region. There were also emergency SMS alerts to inform citizens about new patients in their residential area. The Kakao chat application has provided a centralised platform to access all these governmental websites with ease. A mask application, also developed by the government, shows the stocks of masks in various areas so citizens do not have to queue for long hours to buy them. Online marketplaces have fast replaced the offline markets. With competitive markets, easy online payment methods and highly efficient transportation and delivery services, Koreans did not have to panic buy anything. Famers could also easily sell their products online, alleviating any concerns of food surpluses and shortages.

Building trust 

Korea’s high dependency on ICT has also caused large debates about privacy issues, mostly from external sources, during the pandemic. Korean society has already long discussed privacy and personal data issues, which led to the enactment of a law to protect private information in 2011. The law has been revised to reflect the changing environment and the demands of new technologies such as cloud computing. All Korean companies that have websites are required to have chief privacy officers.

With a high level of internet penetration and with most of its population owning mobile phones, Korea has also gone through many scandals, from online extremism to election intervention. It was certainly not easy for Korea to achieve trust among its citizens, private sectors and the government.

If 1990 onward is the period of building a trusted nation ‘in’ an open society in South Korea, the period before that was ‘toward’ making it an open society. After the Korean War, South Korea had to suffer through illegal elections and military coups, which resulted in the April Revolution and Gwangju Uprising. Korea’s history of contemporary democracy is short. The first presidential election was held only in 1948. The current president, Moon Jae-in, came into office when the Korean citizens’ confidence in their right to select the correct government was at its peak. Former President Park Geun-hye was impeached after being charged with abuse of power, bribery and corruption. Her predecessor, Lee Myeong-bak, was also recently sentenced to 17 years in prison for bribery, embezzlement and tax evasion. Justice could only be served through the active participation of Koreans in the country’s political processes through street protest and vigorous online discussions.

Publicly-funded healthcare also proved to be one of the main factors in the country’s success with keeping the pandemic in check. Proposals to privatise public health insurance once stirred controversy, but the country chose to let healthcare remain within the realm of public policies. With many public health policy research centers and public health insurances, citizens are free of the burden of high healthcare fees. The fact that Korea’s brightest students choose to work in the medical sectors has contributed to strengthening the biomedical industry.

E-government of the people, by the people, for the people

There is no one answer for Korea’s success in containing the spread of COVID-19. Given their different sociopolitical and historical paths, it will be difficult for other countries to copy the Korean model to fight the pandemic. I was surprised by how effectively Korea has dealt with the pandemic given out tumultuous political past. But there is a lot to learn from our success. Countries must seriously consider bring about change in their healthcare policies and governmental functions through e-government.

The world faces many pressing challenges—the reformation of existing international organisations, cyberspace governance, climate-related threats, and pandemics like COVID-19. Issues like discussions on the developing/developed nations status within the World Trade Organization and the US’s withdrawal from a leadership position at the World Health Organization make us question the direction the world is heading toward at this point. Instead of only talking about digital panopticons, the concerted wisdom might be achieved with the help of technologies. Every crisis in history paved the way for new forms of governance, and the COVID-19 pandemic will be no exception.

Is it too much to hope for more transparent and trusted global governance through increased interest and participation of governments and citizens through e-governments? The sun always shines after a storm, but only sunny days do not nurture trees to bear the fruits. At times heavy rains and stormy days are needed for the apples to fall off the tree.

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Yeseul Kim

Yeseul Kim

Yeseul is in a program committee for Asia Pacific School on the Internet governance and also is an individual member for APRALO ICANN.She also used ...

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