Facing Covid-19: past mistakes and lessons learnt
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Facing Covid-19: past mistakes and lessons learnt

The Sims game

Woo Lyou, legal counsel at Electronic Arts, offers his views on Korea’s response to Covid-19 and its implications for businesses



As the deadly Covid-19 virus rages on throughout the world, Korea has managed the crisis well so far. For the most part, the public go about their lives as they have before, and businesses continue to operate normally. Such normalcy is partly the product of a painful lesson learned in 2015, when another contagion struck.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV, more commonly known as MERS), was first reported in Korea in May 2015. Within a month, Korea had recorded the second highest number of test-positive cases in the world. Amid the panic, the government quarantined zoo camels and advised the public against eating camels, even though they are not commonly eaten in Korea.

Various stakeholders failed to mount a coordinated response. The Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) refused to give local governments information on the outbreak because the national government was slow to approve the transfer of such information. Health authorities followed a faulty guideline that required testing of those "who have stayed within two metres and for one hour or longer with a patient [emphasis added]". They neglected to test those who were briefly close or those who had prolonged contact from farther away, but it was later discovered that MERS could be transmitted through these types of contacts. Subsequent confirmed cases, as a result, included not only physicians who had briefly interacted with MERS patients, but also a hospital patient who had been in a different wing from MERS patients.

The government was also slow to inform the public on important public health developments, which allowed disruptive and harmful rumours about the disease to spread, such as that rubbing petroleum jelly under one's nose can prevent infections. When the rate of new infections reached zero several months later, there were a total of 16,693 quarantined persons, 186 confirmed cases, and 38 dead. This was the largest outbreak of MERS outside of Saudi Arabia.

Poor handling of the MERS outbreak showed that Korea would not be ready for the next epidemic. To prevent another crisis, the government streamlined its infectious disease response protocols, including amending the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act (IDCPA) several times from 2015 through 2019.

Improved response

Unfortunately, the opportunity to test the new response systems came soon. In February 2020, Korea again reported the second highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world–this time, it was Covid-19. However, since March, the infection rates have been relatively steady, with the occasional new surge being quickly managed. There are various reasons why the Covid-19 outbreak in Korea was mostly kept under control, but at least some of them are attributable to government response.

First, the information sharing infrastructure among various stakeholders has improved. The IDCPA now requires multilateral sharing of all infectious disease related information among the national government, local governments, hospitals, other medical institutions, and medical professional associations. The revision ensures that hospitals and medical research institutions have the latest information on the development of the disease. Hospitals can allocate treatment resources accordingly, and research institutions can adequately plan the development and production of drugs and other treatments.

Poor handling of the MERS outbreak showed that Korea would not be ready for the next epidemic

Second, the IDCPA now requires the KCDC to set up a standing Emergency Operations Center to collect and disseminate information on infectious diseases, manage the crisis, and take initial measures in emergencies. The Central Disease Control Headquarters (CDCH) has taken on this role, updating the public daily on new developments and making recommendations. For example, when rumours spread that Covid-19 is waterborne and that swimming pools were an infection risk, the CDCH clarified that there is no evidence that Covid-19 is waterborne and that swimming pools only pose a low risk, as long as a distance of two metres can be maintained between people.

Faulty rumours, such as that packages shipped from foreign countries pose infection risks, can have a chilling effect on international commerce. Accurate, up-to-date information reduces such risks.

Third, the health authorities conduct widespread contact tracing and testing. They collect geo-locational data to track all the places or facilities a confirmed patient has visited. Subsequently, they send text messages to all those who have visited the same facility–notifying them to get tested–as well as to those living in the municipality where such facilities are located, warning them against visiting the same area or facility. To mitigate privacy concerns, personal information collected in the process is destroyed after 14 days, and those who disseminate it for a purpose other than stipulated in the IDCPA are subject to criminal prosecution.

Early, widespread testing has suppressed the virus from spreading uncontrollably. As a result, companies can maintain business continuity as they find ways to innovate and adapt to the new normal. It is true that businesses named in the government text messages, and the ones close to those that are named, can suffer severe economic loss. However, the text messages incentivise businesses to implement preventative measures, which, in turn, suppresses the spread overall and stimulates consumption. Additionally, those businesses can reopen after they fulfil certain sanitisation requirements. For example, in early May, over a hundred people were infected within a few days in Itaewon, an area known for fine dining and night life. Some businesses in the area were closed and thoroughly sanitised. They reopened a few days later, and within weeks, Itaewon was again vibrant.

Fourth, the national government establishes and executes strategies for combating infectious diseases. The government used this authority to procure masks and testing kits early. By late January, prior to Covid-19 becoming a major public health concern in Korea, the government, with assistance from private companies, had already developed a testing kit which could deliver results in six hours, and ordered their mass production. By early April, there were more than half a million Covid-19 tests conducted in Korea, a country with a population of fifty-two million. Additionally, in early February, the government purchased the raw materials for N95 masks and supplied them to private companies at a subsidised cost. Despite some early supply disruptions, there were plenty of masks accessible to the public for purchase by April.

Through such efforts, the government procured and supplied over a million N95 masks to medical facilities in March. While the government does not furnish free masks to other businesses, they are widely available to the public at a subsidised cost (approximately $1.25 per unit). Unlike in some other countries, the government does not require employers to supply their employees with free masks. Additionally, businesses do not have to worry about the cost of testing or treating employees for Covid-19; the government bears such costs.

Fifth, unlike many other governments, the Korean government steadfastly avoided lockdowns and generally refrained from travel bans. In February 2020, thousands of new confirmed cases were being reported from one province and some called for a lockdown of the province. However, the government did not lock down the province. Neither did they implement widespread travel bans, instead checking symptoms of those entering the country and requiring them to be quarantined for fourteen days. Many countries that implemented early travel bans or lockdowns have seen substantial surges, indicating their ineffectiveness against Covid-19. Travel bans and lockdowns provide the public with a false sense of security that they are shielded from the virus, while the virus spreads quietly within the community.

Business trips are possible because there are no travel bans, and the 14-day quarantine requirement for entry into Korea may be waived for entrants meeting certain requirements who are pursuing important business, academic, or humanitarian purposes. There is free movement of people and goods across the country. In-person meetings, though advised against, are feasible if necessary.

The Green New Deal

In July, the government unveiled a $62 billion Green New Deal, through which it plans to invest in areas that will lessen the carbon footprint, prevent the spread of infectious diseases and create new jobs. Those areas include 5G telecommunications, remote working systems, high-speed internet infrastructure, drones, automotive vehicles, big data and artificial intelligence, and distance learning.

The government's plan uses the term 'untact', which is a new business term in Korea meaning 'contactless'. Such contactless businesses have already performed well through the pandemic. As people spend more time at home, e-commerce businesses, video streaming services, game studios and publishers, home furnishing businesses, and food delivery services are seeing increased revenues. As funds from the government's plan are infused into the market, companies in the applicable fields are well positioned to capitalise on new opportunities.

Covid-19 regulations for businesses

Although there is continuity in business overall, the government has placed some burdens on businesses as part of its fight against Covid-19. For example, if an employee is confirmed to have Covid-19, the employer needs to notify all workers in the place of business, including dispatch workers and delivery workers, have the infected employee return home immediately, and notify the health authorities. Then, the employer needs to follow the health authorities' instructions, which include cordoning off and disinfecting areas where the infected person has been. Usually, the company may resume operations after completing the disinfection.

In July, the government unveiled a $62 billion Green New Deal, through which it plans to invest in areas that will lessen the carbon footprint

Additionally, there are industry-specific requirements. High-risk operations–such as hospitals, night clubs, and buffets–need to install digital entry trackers to keep track of those who enter, check the symptoms of employees daily, require employees to wear masks, designate a disinfection manager, disinfect shared items daily, and mandate a distance of two metres between employees. All sailors disembarking on any Korean port need to get tested for Covid-19.

Although not legally required, health authorities also recommend that employers establish a monitoring and response plan in case of employee or customer infection. Additionally, employers are encouraged to grant additional paid holidays to employees who cannot work from the office but have respiratory illness symptoms. Businesses are also strongly urged to implement work-from-home procedures or staggered work schedules. Employers should frequently disinfect the workplace and install signage reminding employees to wash their hands and to maintain a two-metre distance. Further, there are industry-specific recommendations. For instance, banking and financial institutions are recommended to forebear interest for six months for customers who are experiencing hardship arising from Covid-19. High-risk facilities are recommended to designate a contact person for health authorities, install partitions, and temporarily shut down shared spaces, such as cafeterias.

Hopeful outlook

As of August, more than 300 have tragically lost their lives to Covid-19 in Korea. Also, a recent surge has strained the economy and the healthcare system. Despite such challenges, Korea's citizens trust their government to respond to the crisis swiftly and effectively, as it has done so far.

Similarly, Korea has fared relatively well economically. While Korea, as a nation dependent on exports, has been affected by decreased worldwide demand for manufactured parts, machinery, and consumer goods, its relatively stable domestic market has mitigated the damage. For example, in June, Korea's automobile exports dropped 37.4%, while its domestic sales rose 41.9%, indicating that the Korean consumer market remains attractive for foreign companies looking to expand their operations. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Korea's economy will contract by just 2.1% in 2020, compared to 4.9% globally.

Every country has responded to Covid-19 differently, with varying degrees of success. By learning from its mistakes in handling the MERS outbreak, Korea's improved response to Covid-19 has placed it in a good position for recovery in terms of both public health and business.


Woo Lyou

Legal counsel, Electronic Arts (EA) Korea

Seoul, South Korea


Woo Lyou is a Korean American and is a legal counsel at Electronic Arts Korea. His work focuses primarily on online games. Before joining Electronic Arts, Woo was a foreign attorney at Yulchon LLC, where he advised inbound and outbound clients on intellectual property matters. Woo started his practice at CJ Entertainment and Media – the studio behind the Oscar-winning film Parasite, where he worked on television dramas, movies, and concerts. His primary practice areas include entertainment law and international commercial transactions.

Woo lives in Seoul. He went to Emory University, where he majored in political science and minored in history. He received his JD from Boston University School of Law.