Coronavirus success vs failure: A tale of two strategies

We discuss South Korea’s approach to containing COVID-19 and ask why the US response has been so slow.

In an UpFront special we ask Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, about the actions South Korea is taking to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The country has been widely applauded for its swift and successful strategy.

We also discuss the United States’s approach to COVID-19 with Mike Leavitt, former Republican Governor of Utah. The US has been struggling to stop the spread of the virus with President Donald Trump accused of downplaying the pandemic in its early stages.

Testing times: Why South Korea’s COVID-19 strategy is working

The coronavirus continued to spread around the world this week and Italy’s death toll surpassed that of China’s. Governments called on citizens to self-isolate, closed borders, put cities into lockdown and shut all but essential businesses.

Amid the crisis, and despite a second wave of infections in Asian countries, South Korea continues to lead the way in containing the spread of COVID-19, with one of the lowest casualty rates in the world.

According to Johns Hopkins University medical researchers, as of this week, the COVID-19 death rate is 0.97 percent in South Korea, compared to 7.94 percent in Italy, 3.98 percent in mainland China and Hong Kong, and 1.68 percent in the US.

Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute, said one of the reasons South Korea has done so well is that it has a robust biotech industry made up of many small companies run by scientists.

“The Chinese published the sequence of the coronavirus. These companies looked at it and then they rapidly developed tests,” Kim said.

Korean companies acted fast to produce those tests and the country now has enough to screen some 20,000 people a day.

“They [South Korea] opened up testing centres that people could drive in and go through. They made it all free and once they identified people, they put them into quarantine,” Kim said.

In early February, the government also obtained mobile phone records, credit card receipts and other private data of everyone who tested positive for COVID-19, and used the information to track the spread of the virus, making much of the data available to the public.

“In this case, you have the health of a nation or the health of a city and you have individual rights. And so I think a lot of people don’t mind because they want to know where they might potentially have been exposed, particularly if they develop symptoms,” Kim said.

Kim acknowledged that while South Korea has worked diligently to combat the virus, the battle is far from over. “This is a war and like a war, winning the first battle is important but it’s not the only thing,” Kim said.

He believes the government’s ultimate aim will be to restore normalcy to everyday life.

“And the only way to really achieve that is to use a vaccine. You’ll have to be able to ensure that as people carry on their activities of daily living, that they’re going to be protected,” he said.

In this week’s UpFront Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute, explains how South Korea has been able to stay on top of the coronavirus.

The US coronavirus response: An F for failure?

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US surpasses 11,000, major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York are under lockdown. Experts say a lack of available testing has been a major setback for the US and has prevented the country from getting ahead of the pandemic. 

Former Utah Republican Governor Mike Leavitt suggested the US could have done better in terms of testing.

“When the after-action report is written on this episode, it’s clear to me that a couple of things will have been learned. The first is that they need to open up to tests that have been validated in other countries,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt said the US faced a unique challenge: a scattered and large population.

“There’s 330 million people. It’s a substantially bigger challenge, but it’s going to be very clear that this will be seen as a weakness. I think that it is being overcome within the course of time, but it’s cost us time … there’s no question that it has weakened our response,” Leavitt said.

In 2018, President Donald Trump disbanded the US government team dedicated to responding to a pandemic. When asked about that decision, Leavitt said there was some dispute about what actually happened.

“I’m not here to defend that, one way or the other,” he said.

“What I do know is that the United States now is responding in a very robust way, with the closing of businesses, with the closing of schools and universities, with a complete suspension of many of our sports leagues and no meetings, that’s a quite remarkable response,” he added.

When the first coronavirus cases were identified in the US, Donald Trump dismissed the seriousness of the spread. In January he said the virus was under control, in February he said it would “go away”, and suggested Democrats were using the virus as a “hoax” to make him look bad.

Leavitt said those statements were “impossible to defend” and that it was time now to look to the future.

“I do think that what’s important is what’s happening now and in the next four weeks, not what happened before … We now have to, as a people, rally to ensure that we in fact respond,” he said.

In this week’s UpFront, Mike Leavitt, former Republican Governor of Utah, discusses the US government’s handling of COVID-19.

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