People wearing face masks walk on a street in central Seoul, South Korea April 22, 2020.
South Korea is one of the only countries in the world that has brought a major COVID-19 outbreak under control. It’s not currently enforcing stay-at-home orders, and most businesses are open.
The country is relying on high-tech solutions — a government app tracks the location of new airport arrivals, and mandatory location tracking bracelets are given to people who break quarantine laws.
Korean health officials are also developing “smart city” tools to bolster existing networks of testing and contact tracing, but some privacy advocates are pushing back.
Beyond high-tech approaches, South Korea has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a more straightforward measure: Making COVID-19 tests widely available.
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In Seoul, South Korea, much of daily life has returned to normal despite the coronavirus pandemic — restaurants, shopping malls, and parks have been filled in recent weeks as the South Korean government started winding down social distancing measures.
It’s one of the first countries in the world to bring a major COVID-19 outbreak under control. Cases in South Korea peaked at 909 on Feb. 28 and have gradually diminished since, and the current death toll from coronavirus is 236, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The country has controlled COVID-19 by rapidly scaling up testing as well as relying on other high-tech solutions: A government app tracks the location of all new visitors to the country; people who violate quarantine have to wear a location-tracking bracelet; “smart city” tech is being deployed to bolster contact tracing networks.
“We are in a lengthy tug of war with the coronavirus,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told Reuters in April, adding that such measures may need to remain in place for months or years.
The success of Asia’s fourth-largest economy could serve as a lesson to other countries, like the US. While there are clear differences between the two nations — for one, South Korea’s single-payer healthcare system makes testing and treatment free for all citizens — the US is still in the process of scaling up testing and exploring how best to deploy contact tracing networks on a state-by-state basis.
Here’s a look at some of the cutting-edge technology being used to fight COVID-19 in South Korea.
A mandatory government-run smartphone app tracks the location of all new arrivals to the country.
An employee from a disinfection service company sanitizes a KTX train at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 4, 2020.
Roughly half of the new cases in South Korea in recent weeks came from oversees, according to Korean health authorities.
At Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, the government has set up walk-through facilities that test anyone with symptoms for COVID-19, and follow up to ensure those without symptoms are tested within three days.
New arrivals also have to download a government smartphone app that tracks their location and asks them to report any symptoms, according to Reuters. Even those without symptoms are forced to self-quarantine for two weeks, after which the app displays a message saying they’re allowed to delete the app from their phone.
The government plans to roll out location-tracking wristbands for people who violate quarantine orders.
People wait in line to buy face masks in front of a store at Dongseongro shopping district in Daegu on February 27, 2020.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images
The Korean government announced plans to roll out location-tracking bracelets for people who break quarantine after reports of people tricking the government-mandated app by leaving their smartphones at home.
The wristbands would instantly alert authorities if people tamper with them or cut them off, according to the Associated Press.
However, the government softened its tone after human rights groups argued that the wristbands violate privacy rights, Reuters reported. Now, wristbands will only be given to patients who consent to wear them — but breaking quarantine is still a crime.
South Korea plans to use ‘smart city’ tech to bulk up its contact tracing networks.
A military vehicle disinfects a road to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, March 4, 2020.
South Korea has already started to build a “smart city” database to monitor traffic and pollution across cities. Now, that infrastructure will be used to track COVID-19, according to a Reuters report last week.
Health authorities will use CCTV footage, credit card transaction data, travel information, and location data to keep tabs on patients.
Using the smart city data bank combined with artificial intelligence, it would take an official roughly 10 minutes to figure out where a patient traveled over the course of the day, Reuters reports.
The government is also stockpiling infrared cameras to detect fevers, along with other medical equipment.
Medical members wearing protective gear guide drivers at a “drive-through” virus test facility in Goyang, north of Seoul, on February 29, 2020.
The South Korean government has devoted over $100 million to buy medical supplies and build isolation rooms as the fight against COVID-19 is expected to stretch into the coming months.
“We will have to step up our daily hygiene and disease prevention standards … It will be a tedious battle, but we have to do this,” Yoon Tae-ho, director general for public health policy at the health ministry told Reuters.
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