A Channel 4 documentary examines how South Korea has tackled the Coronavirus pandemic without a damaging national lockdown.
The documentary explores the vital lessons Britain could learn – in particular from how the authorities are dealing with current small-scale flare ups – and asks whether what’s happened there may reveal what life could be like in the UK when lockdown finally ends.
Filmed in hospitals, testing centres and laboratories at the heart of South Korea’s struggle against Coronavirus, and with interviews with top South Korean politicians and scientists, the documentary reveals a relentless national effort that at almost every stage has seemed faster and better planned than the UK effort.
Professor Hyuk-Min Lee, from the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine tells the programme about the government’s approach to creating and delivering a standardised testing kit that could be mass produced quickly and used at laboratories around the country:
“I did some calculations. If it takes about ten weeks to develop a testing kit, in that time the number of COVID-19 cases may increase about 1000 times. So, if we start with a hundred confirmed cases, the number could reach almost 100,000, in just ten weeks. That’s where countries differ from each other. Normally it takes a year to develop a proper testing kit. We’ve shortened that period to just one week. In my view, it’s better to use a kit developed at 90% effectiveness in order to act quickly, considering the explosive spread of an infectious disease like COVID-19. … Testing enables us to do detection and surveillance. The two are interconnected. I think that the UK should have done this.”
Medical experts interviewed for the documentary recount how they dealt with a severe outbreak within the Shincheonji Church of Jesus – a secretive Christian sect with over 200,000 members – when one woman tested positive in Daegu after attending a church with 9000 other followers. The government tried to call every single one of them over two or three days and found out that 1300 members showed symptoms. A self-quarantine was ordered for all members and testing began for those with symptoms. 90% were positive.
The sheer weight of numbers forced the authorities to temporarily abandon their policy of testing the contacts of all infected people, Professor Moran Ki, Chairman, COVID-19 Task Force, Korean Society of Preventive Medicine tells Channel 4: “Doctors couldn’t go around and check hundreds of people. So, we created a mobile app. Patients checked their own temperature, oxygen saturation, and pulse.…. The doctors would review all the data and do a video call with those who had a fever or symptoms. They’d only go and see them in person when necessary.”
The documentary also highlights how the way the authorities isolated and contained an outbreak at a call centre in Seoul when a number of workers tested positive in mid-March offers a blueprint for how Britain might deal with a similar situation.
Korea-based journalist Raphael Rashid tells the programme: “Local authorities made sure to find every single person who was in that building at that time, not just when the outbreak occurred, but the previous several days if not weeks before…. The approach is to hunt the virus down, find it, contain it and kill it. That’s been the approach since day one…. The credit card companies and the telecommunications companies got together and allowed for the government to literally be able to type someone’s name or social security number and pull all of their information in one go. So now the process takes about 10 minutes, so within 10 minutes the Government is able to know more or less where a person has been and when.”
Another journalist, Edward White adds: “You went from a situation going ‘We might have a thousand people in Seoul’, a city that’s, you know, 10 million people, actually within a few days they realised it wasn’t too bad and ….. within a week or two there was a cluster that was contained as a cluster, and it hadn’t become another outbreak.”
In all, following the call centre outbreak more than 16,000 people were contacted and 131 tested positive. Those who were infected were either sent to hospital or compelled to go into immediate quarantine. Anyone found to have broken quarantine was fined.
Dr Alice Tan, Specialist, Internal Medicine tells the programme testing is key: “I doubt that the dedication of the healthcare workers or the quality of the medical care in Korea is any superior to England or… or Germany or Italy, I don’t think that’s a factor, I think the factor was the widespread early diagnosis that took place and then you know what followed afterwards, the isolation and the early treatment.”
The Country That Beat The Virus: What Can Britain Learn? Channel 4, 9pm, 13 May.