The Korean Model, a vigorous regime of “trace, test, treat”, has shown remarkable results in controlling the spread and mortality of the novel coronavirus, without putting a nationwide lockdown in place, and depended on conducting as many as 18,000 tests a day, says South Korean Ambassador to India Shin Bong-Kil.
What is the latest situation with the Coronavirus epidemic in South Korea?
I can say Korea is now in full control of the spread of the disease. The number of new confirmed cases per day has been showing steady decline since hitting a peak at 989 in February to double-digits figures as of mid-March. I believe, more importantly, that Korea might be the only country that hasn’t imposed a lockdown within its territories or even of its international borders. We have our own strict measures to prevent inflow and outflow of the virus but we are sticking to improving the situation without using drastic measures such as closing off our cities or our borders.
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How has this been possible?
What we call the ‘Korean model’ is grounded on concentrated testing of high-risk areas and clusters. Korea found out at the beginning of the spread of the virus that a certain religious cult group and its gathering was the cause of a large portion of the spread in a certain area of the country. This group had massive gatherings in a closed-off space with congregation in close contact with each other. The government listed all members of the group across the country, tracked their whereabouts and conducted tests on a massive scale, leading to the rapid increase in the number of confirmed cases. However, Korea succeeded in identifying and isolating potential cases at a very early stage and finally flattened the curve.
Are there best practices you would like to share, or advice you think India should follow as it begins its lockdown?
The moment the virus DNA pattern was confirmed in Wuhan, Korean medical teams and bio-companies were able to develop new testing kits with surprising speed. This made it possible for Korea to conduct mass-scale testing of 18,000 cases a day. Anybody in Korea who has symptoms or reasons to be tested can get the test within minutes at a ‘drive-thru’ or ‘walk-thru’ testing centres and receive the result by text message the very next day. Korea made available over 650 testing centers nationwide.
Korea, as a democratic country, put top priority on the principles of openness and transparency. The government is fully committed to sharing information, in a prompt and transparent manner and has gained public trust and high-level of civic awareness, which encouraged the public to take voluntary self-quarantine and other preventive measures such as ‘social-distancing’.
If I could give an advice during such difficult times to the Indian government, I understand the need for lockdowns given India’s demography and medical infrastructure. However, openness and transparency is important to tackling this situation and identifying and isolating the core of the spread of the virus with full medical capacity at the earliest possible stage is key. This is the essence of the ‘Korean Model’.
How are India and Korea cooperating and sharing information during this crisis? Has India made specific requests for testing kits/ medical equipment so far?
Korean government has repeatedly communicated to the Indian government on what is going on in Korea and how we tackle the virus. Though India has not asked for help regarding testing kits or medical equipment, we are always ready to extend a hand. Already, nine Korean companies have received export licenses of testing kits and the Embassy as well as Korean Trade Agency (KOTRA) are willing to facilitate the communication between the Korean companies and those who want to import the kits.
How many South Korean nationals are stranded in India, and needing to be evacuated? What is the status now?
There are currently nearly 15,000 Koreans residing in India, most of who are resident employees of Korean companies and their families. We do not have any plans of evacuation as of now. I like to believe that basically the Korean community in India has confidence in what the Indian Government is doing to tackle this horrible situation. So I hope for the situation to alleviate. But in case the situation worsens, we will discuss what options are best for our citizens when the time comes.
There are many Indian students and workers in Korea but they have not put forward their desire to return to India, as I know. I believe Korea is handling the situation efficiently and to my knowledge the Indian community in Korea is feeling quite safe.
What kind of impact has the virus had on functioning of South Korean companies based in India, and what sort of assistance would they like from the Indian government?
Actually, many Korean companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia have ambitious plans for India, the biggest emerging market in the world. Samsung which has the world’s largest smartphone factory here in Greater Noida as well as other companies, were looking to have greater production and more aggressive strategy to be part of the ‘Make In India’ policy, but they have been hard-hit with this extraordinary situation. KIA Motors, for example, has been another success story in India by setting up a 300,000-unit production plant last year. This year, they were planning to install large facilities for its new small-sized SUV, Sonet, but it is now uncertain if they can move ahead on schedule as engineers and construction experts are unable to receive visas to travel to India.
I understand all industries are going through this together. If I were to refer to bilateral relations, Korean companies have made large investments in India aligned with its ‘Make in India’ initiative and some of those companies have an urgent need to enter the country to expand and redesign the production facilities. I hope that Indian government can grant visas to those who have compelling reasons under the condition that health certificates are presented and self-quarantine is enforced.
I have often seen crises turn into opportunities. I hope India can overcome this difficult situation and rather take this opportunity to becoming the largest manufacturing hub in the world. We should ensure that the economy survive these trying times, if the companies collapse what is the use? I believe it is Indian government’s difficult task to efficiently tackle the pandemic while saving the economy.