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Why Are Covid Cases So Much Lower In South Korea?

With Covid soaring again, I thought you would be interested in hearing a bit about South Korea’s approach.

Very few people are fully vaccinated here. South Korea took it’s time placing orders for vaccines, wanting to see how they worked in other countries. Now we are stuck in the global delays you may have read about. The vaccine timetable keeps getting pushed back. Only 15 percent of people are fully vaccinated, and 40 percent are partially vaccinated. In the meantime, delta is gaining traction, and cases have almost doubled over the past month.

But here’s the kicker, we still have many, many fewer cases than even the US states with the lowest caseloads. Most of our Korean friends don’t even know of anybody who has had covid.

  • In South Korea, 3 out of every 100,000 people are infected

  • In the United States, 24 out of every 100,000 people are infected.

Most importantly, very few people are dying here. Yesterday, in this country, one person died of Covid. It has one sixth of the population of the United States. You can do the math; if the USA had the same rate, 6 people would have died yesterday in the entire country. Instead, 341 Americans died.

So how do they do it? Three key differences are masks, contact tracing, and hand sanitizing.

Masks All Day, Every Day

Everyone wears masks all the time. It doesn’t matter if it is 102 degrees out and humid. Old people wear them, babies wear them. People put them on between sips of coffee at a café. And these aren’t homemade cloth masks either

When I see small children wearing masks on the beach during a heat wave without complaint, it seems ludicrous that US Congressmembers are whining about wearing them in the air-conditioned capital.

Systematic Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is serious business. Every time we go into a restaurant, coffee shop, theater, shopping mall, etc, we open our phones, pull up a one-time QR code using a Korean social media app, and scan in. If anyone who was there at the same time comes down with covid, we will get a notification on our phones asking us to get tested.

For people who don’t have the app, there is a sheet of paper to write your contact information along with the date and time. At busy places or large events, there is a phone number to call. It automatically records our phone numbers so we can be contacted if necessary. None of this is optional and none of it is controversial. If you don’t want to share your information, you can stay home.

No Hands Left Unsanitized

On the other hand, hand sanitizing is completely optional. But there are bottles everywhere--on buses, in parks and subway stations, at the front of every restaurant. Every day I pass three hand sanitizing stations in between the entrance to our building and our apartment door.

There is also a big screen that somehow checks your temperature. We don’t have to stop or even slow down; it supposedly sets off an alarm if your temperature is feverish.

Some of this might look intrusive to some of you. But it doesn’t feel that way. I like seeing technology used to save lives.

Almost everyone follows the Covid rules here. People understand that their decisions affect others, and that they have a responsibility to keep other’s safe. There is national pride in Korea’s success so far, and there is disdain for the American approach. (There is also frustration with the South Korean government for not moving faster to get vaccines. The ruling political party will likely lose in the next election as a result.)

These policies have been saving lives for the past year and a half. Only 2,200 people have died here since the pandemic started. That’s equivalent to about 13,000 people dying in the United States. Instead, 613,000 have died. Imagine…

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Michael Miller
Michael Miller
Aug 07, 2021

love your posts. Very interesting to get an "insiders" view of Korea. I greatly admire your spirit of adventure!

Concerning Covid, Korea shows that public health measures work if the government presents a clear plan that the population politically and culturally accepts.

I was very interested in the low deaths of covid patients in Korea. However the death RATE is probably about the same.

Some thoughts- the Covid death rate is about 1% in Korea: South Korea

Coronavirus Cases: 209,228

Deaths: 2,116

Recovered: 183,789

The US death rate of Covid is about 2 %, twice the Korean rate. Does this mean the actual care of a confirmed Covid case is better in Korea? Probably not significantly since the Korean system probably accounts for…

Aug 08, 2021
Replying to

Hi Mike!

I don't know if asymptomatic people get tested any more frequently here than in the US. Both countries have a mix of voluntary and mandatory testing.

It is possible that the covid care is better here because the hospitals have never been overwhelmed with patients.

The overall life expectancy in South Korea is also higher than in the US. And it has actually increased in the past year. I think that average people have better access to high quality health care technology here compared to the US. It is all very affordable here, and there is national health insurance that pays for it.


Aug 03, 2021

It sounds like a government that actually cares about its people, and people who care about each other.

Aug 03, 2021
Replying to

Amazing, right?

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