South Korea a Model Case for Combating Covid-19: Lessons for India from the Korean Experience
Prof Rajaram Panda

When the coronavirus or Covid-19 broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, South Korea experienced one of the world’s largest initial outbreaks outside China. Though Covid-19 has spread to as many as 205 countries across the world, infected 3.7 million people and causing over 2.6 lakh deaths (and the number is rising), the United States and Europe have been most severely affected. These countries have taken various measures, including nationwide lockdown, to contain the spread but have not been fully successful. With the search for a vaccine going on at a breakneck speed and yet to be found, South Korea has been able to contain and drastically reduce the spread of the virus without imposing a nationwide lockdown or any draconian measures.

To give a larger picture, as of 6 May 2020, global Covid-19 infections topped 3.7 million with 260,487 deaths, though the rate of fatalities slowed. The cases in Asia hit 250,000 but pace was much lower than the US and Europe. It was driven by outbreaks in Singapore, Pakistan and India, even as China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan significantly slowed the spread of the disease. At 250,650, Asia now accounts for just 7% of global cases, compared with 40% for Europe and 34% for North America, although experts worry that unreported infections are masking the true extent of the pandemic.1 The figure of 3.7 million easily exceeds the estimated 140,000 deaths worldwide in 2018 caused by measles, and compares with around 3 million to 5 million cases of severe illness caused annually by seasonal influenza, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
While the current trajectory of COVID-19 falls far short of the 1918 Spanish flu, which infected an estimated 500 million people, killing at least 10% of patients, experts worry the available data is underplaying the true impact of the pandemic.1 The concerns come as several countries begin to ease strict lockdowns that have been credited with helping contain the spread of the virus. A second or even a third wave to occur is feared.

South Korea is the first country to announce plans to reopen schools in phases from May 13; more than two months after schools were closed in a precautionary measure against the new Covid-19.3 Students had been taking online classes since April. The new school year usually starts in March, but the government postponed it by five weeks or more as part of efforts to fight the virus pandemic. It marked the first time in the country's 70-year history of education that students began the new school year through online classes. The decision to reopen schools was taken as concerns over new infections started weakening. Daily infections, which peaked at 909 on 29 February, fell to single-digit figures by the first week of May 2020.

Early Measures by South Korea

South Korea’s early response to contain the spread of Covid-19 may provide insights which could be helpful for other governments and civil-society groups working to combat the pandemic. What measures South Korea took immediately that other countries failed to do to combat the virus? It focused on aggressive testing and contact tracing to contain community transmission and established a strict triage system to protect healthcare workers. Also the country’s civil-society sector, including non-governmental organisations and trade unions, played a critical role in monitoring the situation closely, helping to hold the authorities accountable and reaching the most vulnerable social groups. 4

Among early measures that the government took are procuring high-quality diagnostic kits based on a tightly coordinated transfer of public-funded technology to private manufacturers, establishing a mass testing system with cooperation from public health centres. These early steps proved useful in checking the virus from spreading fast. Because of the government’s agile steps, it has now more than 600 testing sites, including 80 drive-through centres, capable of testing a total of 20,000 people per day. Individuals with suspected Covid-19 symptoms and contact histories are legally entitled to be tested free of charge.5

What strategy did South Korea adopt in containing the virus? As a first step, when a new case was identified, local governments used contact tracing to quarantine potential carriers and publicly disclosed their individual travel histories to inform nearby residents of their potential exposure. The triage system helped suspected patients from infecting healthcare workers and other patients in hospitals. Mobile phone GPS data, credit card transaction records and CCTV footage helped authorities for contact tracing. Such use of personal data is legal in South Korea and proved effective. Yet it raised significant privacy concerns. Such methods were used for public safety and thus opposition was muted. Social distancing measures were also effectively implemented by public awareness campaign.

As in many developed or semi-developed countries where greater emphasis is given on private enterprises, in South Korea as well the mismatch between private and public sector healthcare systems were glaringly exposed. While the public hospitals were found underinvested and found suddenly a spike in the number of patients needed to be accommodated, private hospitals which account for 90 per cent of the country’s hospital beds were either not so cooperative or lacked the necessary infrastructure needed to treat Covid-19 patients as those were not profitable in normal times. The intervention of the civil society groups helped government to address this critical mismatch issue.

In particular, the role of the civil society organisations in protecting the interests of migrant and refugees by facilitating access to testing and treatment was laudable. Because of their pro-active stand, the government agreed in early March to test undocumented migrants to test for Covid-19 without the threat of deportation.

The issue of combating the virus has assumed so much of global importance that governments around the world are increasingly adopting wartime-like measures to fight the pandemic. In this fight, the role of civil society in keeping the government in check is important as policy makers respond in ways that could further exacerbate inequalities or marginalise the most vulnerable groups. South Korea’s example of this success story is a valuable lesson for the world, including India.6

Secret to South Korea’s success

South Korea’s success can be measured in relative terms of how Europe emerged as the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic but failed so far despite strong measures, including lockdowns. Case counts and deaths are soaring in many countries across the globe. As of 6 May 2020, the number of infections due to the Covid-19 crossed three million (3,711,425 cases) across the world and the toll stood at 260,487. The highest number of infections was reported by the US with 1,214,572 cases, followed by Spain (219,392), Italy (214,457), UK (202,355), and France (170,694). Meanwhile, the US has the highest number of deaths, with the toll at 71,526, followed by Italy (29,684), UK (30,150), Spain (25,613), and France (25,538). On the other hand, more than a million (1,211,178) people have already recovered from the deadly virus globally.7 (The number is rising every day).

Many countries have imposed lockdowns and closed borders, including declaration of emergency. The reason why the number of cases spiked in the US is being attributed to delayed and faulty test kits, blame game, spat with China and other reasons. The fiasco is equally the same in some other European countries. It is here some lessons could be learnt how South Korea addressed the issue with remarkable success and see the country as a model to emulate.

By effective early measures, the country of 50 million greatly slowed the epidemic without even locking down the entire cities or taking some of the other authoritarian measures that helped China bring its epidemic under control. It was reasoned that in a democratic country such as South Korea, lockdown was not a reasonable choice. The country is prepared now if there is resurgence or a second wave, as it is called.

As said, it launched a well-organised testing program, and efforts to isolate infected people, trace and quarantine their contacts. It tested more than 270,000 people or more than 5200 tests per million inhabitants, more than any other country except tiny Bahrain. South Korea’s experience showed that diagnostic capacity at scale is the key to epidemic control. Contact tracing, isolation, social distancing are influential in epidemic control. Once it was found that 60 per cent of the country’s total cases was linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive Korean cult, it helped the government to take quick effective measures to arrest further spread of the virus.8

Lessons from MERS

South Korea had learnt some lessons on the importance of preparedness while dealing with the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2015, which helped this time when Covid-19 spread to South Korea. In 2015, a South Korean businessman returned from a visit to three Middle Eastern countries infected with MERS. He was treated at three South Korean health facilities where he was detected of the infection and was quickly isolated. But in this intervening period, he had already infected 186 persons of which 36 finally died. In the process, many patients including visitors and hospital staff were infected and needed treatment. The government went on a war mode and launched tracing, testing and quarantining nearly 17,000 people. The spread of the virus was contained in two months. The nation was already alarmed of the impending damage such a virus could cause as it dented the economy somewhat. During that epidemic, South Korea suffered the largest number of cases outside of Saudi Arabia, in part because the government’s response was slow and inadequate.

Measures Backed by Law

The country learnt the lesson from this experience that laboratory testing is essential to control an emerging infectious disease. This experience also helped the government to improve hospital infection prevention control. This also prevented the spread of infection to health care workers when Covid-19 hit the country initially.

However, health care providers working with virus patients appear at high risk of infection. This is true for all the countries infected with the virus. As of 1 April 2020, 241 health care workers had contracted the virus according to government data. It was on 29 April, Korea confirmed a first death of a physician from COVID-19.9 The KCDC said he was infected by one of patients who came to his office. Nearly half of newly confirmed patients nationwide were recent travellers from overseas. The vast majority of local transmissions are linked to communal activities. Health care workers make up 2.4 per cent of the confirmed virus cases.

In order to cope with any such situation in future, the government enacted legislation authorising authority to collect phone, credit card, and other data from those tested positive to reconstruct their whereabouts. Persons are thus stripped of personal information which is shared on social media apps that allowed others to determine whether they may have crossed paths with an infected person.

Role of KCDC

Also, after the Covid-19 emerged in the country, Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) went on an overdrive to develop its tests and cooperated with diagnostic manufacturers to develop commercial kits. 10 The first test was approved on 7 February, when the country had just a few cases, and distributed to regional health centres. After a 61-year-old woman was identified tested positive, it transpired that she had attended services at the Shincheonji mega church in Daegu. This was the alarm bell for the authorities to go on overdrive.

Soon 2,900 cases were identified in next two weeks. Majority of these infected persons were Shincheonji members. By 29 February, the KCDC reported a total of 3,150 cases. This made the largest by far outside mainland China, the country of virus’ origin. The KCDC’s capabilities were put to test when there was a sudden surge in cases needed to be tested. The law that had empowered the government to gather personal data helped. Contact tracing efforts showed that 80 per cent of those reporting respiratory symptoms and proved positive were concentrated on the Shincheonji cluster, compared with only 10 per cent in other clusters.

The next step was to categorise infected persons into different categories. High-risk patients got priority for hospitalisation. Those with moderate symptoms were sent to repurposed corporate training facilities and spaces provided by public institutions, where they got basic medical support and observation. Those recovered and tested negative twice were released. A local monitoring team called twice daily to make sure the quarantined stay put and asked about symptoms. Quarantine violators were warned that they would face up to 3 million won ($2,500) fines. If a recent bill becomes law, the fine will go up to 10 million won and a year in jail.

The seriousness of the South Korean authorities can be deciphered from the warning issued by KCDC Director Kwon Jun-wook that lying during coronavirus checks constituted an offense, and that no leniency policy would be put in place for all forms of foul play during a quarantine procedure. He further warned that “giving false or deceptive information during the coronavirus investigation can result in up to one year of jail time or 10 million won in fines”. He further warned: “Violating a quarantine order can lead to similar penalties per laws on infectious disease control.” 11 Social distancing was also encouraged as it is the most effective form of virus containment. The authorities noted that hospitals and nursing homes were the centre of newly emerging infection clusters.

Since then, South Korea raised its national testing capacity to a staggering 15,000 tests per day nationwide. Besides its new concept of drive-through testing (it has 70) stations nationwide is being copied in the US, Canada and England. These facilities allowed for thousands to be tested daily even while maintaining social distancing, as patients waited safely in the confines of their vehicles. Medical doctors are also planning to share details of the clinical features of Covid-19 cases in the country in their publications so that other countries can benefit.

The publications are expected to feature details of government-mandated GPS-tracking app designed to monitor to punish people who break quarantine, detailing the whereabouts of every single confirmed patient down to which theatre seat they sat in, which plastic surgery clinic they visited and even where they got their lingerie.12

Controversy over Data collection/Surveillance

While analysing the global response to contain Covid-19 and the methods adopted by various countries, the debate has arisen on the effectiveness of strategies chosen by authoritarian and democratic systems with the long term goal to stem the spike of the virus. If the methods chosen breached the legal tools but acceptable to respond to a public health emergency is a matter of debate. Opinions shall always differ on the correctness of the paths chosen.

In fact, it is reduced to the question of a clash between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy. For example, an authoritarian system such as China mishandled when the virus first broke out and even the whistleblower Doctor Li Wenliang was ridiculed and reprimanded for spreading misinformation and rumours. Then there is a question mark that China did not tell the world about the virus for six critical days even though it already knew about it. If we compared this style of functioning with a democracy like South Korea where the government acted in accordance with law despite that personal data of people were put on the public domain for the public good, the issue of moral superiority of democracy over authoritarianism gets clearly established. No wonder a Taiwanese analyst triumphantly announced how a democratic Taiwan outperformed an authoritarian China.13 Another article in the New York Times called South Korea a model for “openness, a contrast to China”.14 Similarly, American analyst Adam Nelson of National Democratic Institute wrote, “authoritarianism is the greatest public health risk”.15 From the South Korean experience and its early success it transpired that democracies are better at fighting outbreaks. China’s reputation further nosedived when it had to revise the death toll after it first tried to play down the fatalities, exposing thereby the sickness of authoritarian governance.

South Korea was not the only country to collect personal data of the people to combat the pandemic. In Italy, authorities analysed location data transmitted by citizens’ mobile phones to determine how many people were obeying a government lockdown order and the social distance they maintain. In Israel too, the country’s internal security agency started using a cache of mobile phone location data, originally intended for counterterrorism operations, to try to pinpoint citizens who may have been exposed to the virus. In the race to contain the pandemic around the world, many deployed digital surveillance tools as a means to exert social control, even letting security agencies to use technologies on their own civilians.16 The larger goal has always been how to combat the Covid-19.

As early as January, South Korean authorities began posting detailed location histories on each person who tested positive for the coronavirus. The site included a wealth of information — such as details about when people left for work, whether they wore masks in the subway, the name of the stations where they changed trains, the massage parlours and karaoke bars they frequented and the names of the clinics where they were tested for the virus. There was a darker side as well. Internet mobs exploited patient data disclosed by the government site to identify people by name and hound them. When there was a fear of privacy invasions discouraging citizens from getting tested for the virus, health officials announced in March that they would refine their data-sharing guidelines to minimize patient risk. To allay the concerns of the people, Soon Jung Eun-kyeong, Director of South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the government’s approach shall be to keep balance between protecting individual human rights and privacy on the one hand and upholding public interest in preventing mass infections on the other. 17

Lesson for the World from South Korea’s Experience

The above discussion demonstrates that South Korea took tracing to a new level. Passengers deplaning at Incheon International Airport in Seoul passed through mandatory temperature checks and were required to download the health ministry’s self-diagnosis app. Once at their destination, they must use the app every day to self-report any symptoms of Covid-19. The movements of those who tested positive were tracked, and other people in the vicinity received social distancing alerts on their phones.

But South Korea’s surveillance is only one small aspect of what has become the gold standard for flattening the curve. Writing in the Foreign Affairs, Victor Cha observes: “The South Korean response—a blend of quick action and policy innovations coordinated by the national government—has proven enormously effective in containing the COVID-19 outbreak and can provide lessons for other countries”.18 South Korea’s timely response has been one of the most efficient containment strategies. Apart from jump-starting production of test kits once the first Covid-19 case was detected on 20 January without losing any time, and declaring a national emergency on 23 February, South Korea placed a premium on working quickly and proved to the world that time was of the essence.

Another innovative idea adopted was the “designated site” system. In this, the government assigned some medical facilities to handle Covid-19 cases exclusively and others to handle other ailments. Designated sites were listed on the government app and identified with large signs on their premises. People in HAZMAT suits stood at hospital entrances to direct walk-in patients to the designated and non-designated sites. This system helped keep virus-afflicted patients away from other patients, thus reducing the spread of the disease.19

Much of the credit must go to the government that it was able to bring the public and private sectors together to solve the problem. Both in unison responded to the outbreak on a national scale successfully. Had the issue been left to the local authorities, the challenge could not have been addressed effectively. These measures were accompanied by aid packages for cities and provinces, suspending social security payments, and providing cash payments to households below the medium income level.

As with other countries, South Korea too faced shortage of facemasks. Timely government intervention ensured that this issue too was addressed in time. On 5 March, the government purchased 80 per cent of the masks produced domestically and prioritised hospitals for distribution, besides creating a price control and ration system. To prevent hoarding, citizens were allowed to purchase masks only on designated days based on the last digits of their birth years. As a result of government control over distribution, a mask costing about $1.27 could be purchased at a pharmacy, a post office, or an agricultural cooperative. Thus South Korea presents a lesson for other countries for its best practices to flatten the curve in virus hot spots and keep cases to a minimum in parts of the country that have yet to experience a severe outbreak.20

The WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus implored countries fighting the Covid-19 by emphasising “Test, test, test”. South Korea was one the first countries to responded and start testing and its success to contain is there for all to see. The backbone of Korea’s success has been mass, indiscriminate testing. Michael Mina, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University observes: “[South Korea’s] extensive testing is a very valuable tool to both control the virus and understand and measure the effectiveness of the responses that are taking place.” 21 He further observed: “It’s allowed individuals to take matters into their own hands and make social distancing decisions on their own, both to protect those around them and to protect themselves from those who are infected around them.” 22

Having learnt from the 2015 MERS, Korean peoples were more likely to wash their hands, stay at home and get tested if requested to. As soon as the Covid-19 was first reported in China, South Korea’s CDC developed testing kits extremely quickly. The government had passed through a lot of pain during the MERS and did not want to go through the same again and therefore kept a plan in place in time.23

Now the question that arises: Is the Korean model transferable? It can be demonstrated from South Korea’s successes that its methods and containment tools are not prohibitively complex or expensive24 and can be adopted by countries with different systems and cultures.

Some of the technology the country used was as simple as specialized rubber gloves and cotton swabs. Experts cite three major hurdles to following South Korea’s lead but none related to cost or technology. One is political will. Many governments have hesitated to impose onerous measures in the absence of a crisis-level outbreak. Another is public will. Social trust is higher in South Korea than in many other countries, particularly Western democracies beset by polarization and populist backlash.25

Lessons for India

What lessons can India learn from South Korea’s experience? India-South Korea relationship is rooted in history with civilizational links. In recent times, both sides have deepened economic relations and established strategic partnership. It was natural that Prime Minister reached out to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on telephone on 9 April to exchange views on what both countries can learn each other and cooperate to combat the Covid-19.26 Both leaders discussed ways to tackle the novel coronavirus pandemic through cooperation and leveraging the power of technology. Modi called for a people-first approach against the virus and free sharing of benefits from medical R & D during his speech at the G-20 virtual summit in March 2020, to which Moon extended support. Modi joined the international community in praising South Korea for its science-based handling of the Covid-19 and expected South Korea to “actively consider” providing India with additional test kits if necessary. Modi also expressed appreciation of the South Korean government for facilitating supplies and transport of medical equipment being sourced by Indian companies.27

Though India was looking at China, South Korea and Germany for best practices and technology, South Korea was by all means the preferred partner for cooperation in combating the virus. In particular, India was looking at South Korea’s approach of widespread and significant use of digital tracking of suspected cases to contain the pandemic. The South Korean model of ''trace, test and treat strategy'' has received global recognition.28 Unlike majority of the countries dealing with the pandemic, South Korea has not resorted to any lockdown and allowed business and economic activities to go on as usual.

Following Modi’s talk with Moon, India inked a deal with South Korean firm for 500,000 testing kits, marking the first purchase agreement signed by the Indian embassy in Seoul. The testing kits were to be delivered to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which is playing a key role in shaping India’s efforts to contain the Covid-19. The kits were to be delivered by the South Korean firms, Humasis Ltd. in four lots from 30 April.29

The factory of Humasis Ltd. located at Gyeongi-do of South Korea is sourcing its raw materials from India for production of these diagnostic testing kits. This collaboration forms an important part of efforts to augment India’s testing capacity in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. Also, India’s Central and state government agencies and private companies have sourced 450,000 tests (both Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) and antibody tests) from different Korean companies. RT-PCR test kits are for the detection of the Covid-19. Another South Korean diagnostic kit manufacturing company SD Biosensor started manufacturing rapid antibody test kits in its Manesar plant after getting the necessary go-ahead from the Indian Council of Medical Research and from the Drug Controller General of India.

Inspired by South Korea, the Indian state of Kerala launched walk-in Covid-19 sample collection kiosk.30 The Ernakulam district authorities, in conjunction with the state health department unveiled a 'walk-in sample kiosk' (WISK) model through which health workers can take swab or blood samples from a potentially-positive person within two minutes. The idea of a walk-in sample kiosk was converted into a realistic and practical model by a team of doctors and officials at the Kalamassery Medical College. Drawing inspiration from South Korea’s highly-praised drive-through testing centres for Covid-19 that helped the country flatten the curve and reduce the rate of community spread, a district administration in Kerala devised an innovative model that can make swab sample collection a faster and safe process.

Though a detailed analysis on how India and South Korea have cooperated and what prospects exist for further deepening cooperation in this area is beyond the scope of this paper, it will suffice to say that the both countries can learn from each other to combat this global menace by sharing their respective expertise. Given the political understanding that both have, it would be easy to expand cooperation in this area as well. This shall add another dimension to the burgeoning economic ties, adding thereby to the robustness of the bilateral ties. Bilateral cooperation can be a win-win proposition for both sides and also for the region and beyond. The Korean mantra of “trace, test and treat” that has helped the Korean government control the pandemic can also be of immense value not only to India but to those willing to adopt the Korean model.

  1. The Hindu, 5 May 2020.
  2. “Global coronavirus deaths exceed quarter of a million – Reuters tally”, 5 May 2020,
  3. “Schools to open in phases from May 13”, 4 May 2020,
  4. Myoung-hee Kim, “How South Korea stopped Covid-19 early”, 28 April 2020,
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Coronavirus Global Updates, May 4: Spain hits lowest daily death toll in weeks; Japan extends state of emergency”, The Indian Express, 4 May 2020, . Also see, These figures are from Johns Hopkins University as reported in Times of India, 7 May 2020.
  8. Dennis Normile, “Coronavirus cases have dropped sharply in South Korea. What’s is the secret to its success?”, 17 March 2020,
  9. Kim Arin, “South Korea seeks heftier penalties for quarantine violators”, The Korea Herald, 6 April 2020,
  10. For the functions and role of the KCDC, see,
  11. Kim Arin, n. 9.
  12. Brian Kim, “Lessons for America: How South Korean Authorities Used Law to Fight the Coronavirus”, 16 March 2020,; Brian Kim, South Korea has the legal Infrastructure to fight Pandemics; The US doesn’t”, The Global Asia,;-the-us-doesnt_brian-j-kim
  13. Victor(Lin) Pu, “The Coronavirus Outbreak: How Democratic Taiwan Outperformed Authoritarian China”, The Diplomat, 27 February 2020,
  14. Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korean Leader Said Coronavirus Would ‘Disappear.’ It Was a Costly Error”, The New York Times, 27 February 2020,
  15. Adam Nelson, “Authoritarianism is the greatest public health risk”, The Hill, 23 February 2020,
  16. Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun, “As Coronovirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets”, 23 March 2020,
  17. Ibid.
  18. Victor Cha, “South Korea offers a Lesson in Best Practices”, Foreign Affairs, May-June 2020,
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Will Bedingfield, “What the world can learn from South Korea’s coronavirus strategy”, 21 March 2020,
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. “Max Fisher and Choe Sang-Hun, South Korea Flattened the Curve”, New York Times, 23 March 2020,
  25. Ibid.
  26. Moon, Modi agree on ‘people- first’ approach to coronavirus crisis”, 9 April 2020,
  27. “PM Modi thanks South Korean President for tech-based help in fighting Conid-19”, 9 April 2020,; “PM Modi, South Korea President Discuss Ways To Tackle COVID-19 Crisis”, 9 April 2020,
  28. COVID-19: India Looks At China, South Korea, Germany For Best Practices, Technology”, 2 April 2020,
  29. Rezaul H Laskar, “Covid-19: India inks deal with South Korean firm for 500,000 testing kits”, The Hindustan Times, 20 April 2020,; Elizabeth Roche, “S Korean company to supply 500,000 covid-19 testing kits starting 30 April”, 20 April 2020,
  30. “Inspired by South Korea, Kerala launches walk-in Covid-19 sample collection kiosk”, Indian Express, 6 April 2020,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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