Media Release: Covid-19 time travellers: assessing South Korea’s virus response

Media Release
24 April, 2020

Wellington, 24 April - South Korea has tackled the Covid-19 crisis competently and New Zealand could learn from the East Asian country as it considers moving to Alert Level 3, according to a new report from the New Zealand Initiative.

While no country comparison is perfect, both New Zealand and South Korea are highly-wired and technologically advanced liberal democracies. The two share many other characteristics and tight economic relationships.

In Lessons from Abroad: South Korea's Covid-19 Containment Model, authors Leonard Hong and Joel Hernandez outline how South Korea both contained its Covid-19 outbreak while maintaining a relatively open economy.

As New Zealand considers partially reopening its economy after more than a month in strict lockdown, Hong said it could glean insights from South Korea’s experiences.

“As of April 20, South Korea is 91 days into its Covid-19 response compared to New Zealand's 52 days. New Zealand appears to be on the same trajectory as South Korea."

“In some ways, looking at South Korea is like talking to a time traveller. For more than a month, the South Korean economy has been living in a similar alert level that New Zealand is about to enter. It’s a great opportunity to add to our knowledge of what we might need to do,” said Hong.

Well before Covid-19 entered the country, South Korea had already built robust healthcare infrastructure and rapidly developed fast coronavirus testing systems using public and private sector cooperation.

The country’s existing strict quarantine system to separate healthy from infected arrivals was upgraded to deal with the new virus. A series of drive-through testing booths were also rolled out, an idea already sketched out by the government when considering an emergency response in the case of an attack by North Korea.

South Korea also quickly digitalised its entire contact tracing system, set up teams to fumigate public spaces and encouraged the wearing of face masks – a practice which was already deeply embedded into the South Korean civic culture due to high levels of air pollution blowing over from China.

However, the report said some things South Korea has implemented likely aren’t palatable for Kiwis.

For instance, while the country did not impose overly draconian Covid-19 responses, it does operate an invasive surveillance system to track both healthy and unhealthy citizens. The system was a result of the country’s experience during the MERS outbreak in 2015 which exposed multiple flaws in its health infrastructure and governance.

Hong said South Koreans tend to prioritise public health over civil liberty in emergencies far more than New Zealanders.

“But South Korea’s experience shows that the critical ingredient when fighting a pandemic in a liberal democracy is to have competent government officials cooperating with the private sector and diligently enacting key lessons from past pandemics to prepare the country’s healthcare sector for future outbreaks,” Hong said.

“New Zealand can learn from South Korea’s experience as it attempts to reinvigorate its economy while simultaneously containing Covid-19.”

Read more:
Lessons from Abroad: South Korea's Covid-19 Containment Model is available here.


Leonard Hong is available for comments. To schedule an interview, please contact:

Linda Heerink, Communications Officer
P: 021 172 8036

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates