What America (And Donald Trump) Could Learn from South Korea's Coronavirus Struggles

What America (And Donald Trump) Could Learn from South Korea's Coronavirus Struggles

What can Trump and the U.S. learn from what South Korea has gone through so far? A professor in South Korea explains. 

As the coronavirus spreads to the United States, it is worth considering mitigation measures from the democracy which has so far dealt with the worst outbreak – South Korea.

China, of course, has had a worse experience, but its authoritarian government can entertain countermeasures no democracy can, at least at this early stage. Democracies like the U.S. and South Korea face constitutional limits on the restriction of civil liberties, for example. Democracies also face public pressure to respond to the actual virus event, where too much of China’s response has focused on prestige and national security over public health. With all of that said, here are six Americans can learn from what South Korea is going through: 

1. Politicization is inevitable…

In any democracy, policy choices must be made, and varied interests must be weighed against each other. Barring genuinely apocalyptic scenarios like nuclear war, new issues cannot simply clear the deck. They must contend with old priorities for funding, bureaucratic focus, presidential attention, and so on. Corona is no different. It is bad but not that bad. Media sensationalism aside, it is not the Black Death nor some zombie movie scenario. It is a middling level problem and so proponents of a forceful response must struggle with the same tussle of democratic back-and-forth other issues face.

This is why so many democracies – the U.S. and South Korea included – have been criticized for their slow response. Two months ago, it was not clear that corona would explode as it has. It seemed, initially, like a containable contagion akin to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

As such, democracies face choices about how much time and resources to put into corona. Inevitably that means politics.

2. …but that doesn’t really change much about a non-political, natural event

Corona is one of those issues like climate change that does not go away or change because of the political lens through which it is approached. It is more a technocratic than a political problem, so the obvious thing is for the politicians to step aside and allow medical professionals, within reason, to run the response.

South Korea has become quite good at this once the magnitude of this became apparent. The counter-measures now are widespread and deep, while the politicking has died down and become more responsible. In fact, corona is illustrating the deep capacity of the South Korean state to act on a nation-wide basis once it is mobilized. It is quite impressive.

The U.S. could learn from this, particularly the administration of President Donald Trump. It is now common knowledge that Trump’s budgets have reduced U.S. spending on infectious diseases and the Center for Disease Control, and that Trump himself would prefer to blame this on the Democrats and ‘liberal media.’ This is unhelpful and illustrates a long-standing tension in the Republican party’s anti-statist ideology: natural events like this are impervious to dogma and only the state has the resources and depth to respond.

3. Be prepared for widespread shutdowns, especially of schools

The best way to slow the spread of corona, like any infectious disease, is social distancing, epidemiology-speak for keeping away from other people. As infections in South Korea spiked, the government has taken more and more dramatic action to enforce this. The government is now counseling people basically to not leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. Social events of all sorts have shut down – from the mundane like concerts and marathons to the serious like schools. School shut-downs have placed real pressure on families without the flexibility to keep a parent at home. The U.S. should prepare for this, as it is likely coming.

4. Be prepared to cover and wash everything

If you cannot stay away from other people, then the next best thing is to erect physical barriers between you, and them and other surfaces. Wearing masks and gloves outside is now ubiquitous. Surfaces of all sorts here are also being covered and cleaned regularly. In my apartment building, the door entrance control panel of buttons is now covered, as is the button panel in our elevator. (It is fairly extraordinary to watch just how deep into the crevices of everyday life such prevention measures are penetrating.) And of course, everyone washes their hands regularly, and there is a hand-sanitizer at almost every door to every building. I even saw cleanser in the subway the other day.

5. Open more hospital space

While the sanitization of just about everything in South Korea by people clad in toxic gear has been the dominant global media image, the actual follow-up of treating people has suffered for lack of hospital beds. The U.S. should get in front of this now, as this is emerging as the most acute treatment problem here.

6. Don’t panic

The global media coverage of South Korea’s outbreak has been rather lopsided toward sensationalism. I keep seeing words like ‘soar,’ ‘spiral,’ and ‘out of control.’ This is not really fair. Remember that South Korea has a population of 53 million, and only 40 people have died. That is not a plague, despite all the movies we have seen. As a democracy, South Korea cannot simply lock up the infected, nor bar western journalists from flying in to report scare stories. China can, which is probably why you hear more about the outbreaks in South Korea and Japan than China, even though it is much worse there.

Bad news is inevitable in a democracy with a free press, but that is also a public good. At least you can trust state information here and from the U.S. government. By contrast, no one now trusts what Chinese media are saying about corona; it is fixated on supposed foreign overreaction and now laughably insists that corona did not actually originate in China.

These are just a few thoughts about what has been a pretty mature, sober, non-civil liberties abridging response in South Korea. It took the Seoul government a bit long to come around, and its decision not to bar Chinese travelers will, I believe, be remembered as its big preliminary error. The Trump administration now seems to be going through that initial phase of denial, confusion, and politicization. The sooner it moves onto the technocratic phase, the sooner it will slow corona in the U.S.

Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.