Guest Column

Pandemic Makes Case for Partnership Between ROK and Myanmar, Other Mekong Nations

By Ambassador Lee Sang-hwa 19 March 2020

At the Mekong-ROK special summit in Busan last November, the leaders agreed to foster cooperation to address non-traditional security challenges and reinforce disaster resilience. Like climate change, fighting against infectious diseases has emerged as an agenda requiring our concerted and common response, more than ever. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a glaring example.

As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Addressing infectious diseases has become a new normal. As prevention, mitigation and adaptation are the guiding principles in fighting against climate change, “trace, test and treat” is the mantra for infectious diseases. There is no magic solution. Past experience demonstrates that early patient detection via accurate testing followed by isolation is the best approach to prevent the further spread of the virus and to decrease the mortality rate.

Though we are not out of the woods yet, we should start delving into lessons learned. In this regard, some of the measures that Korea has taken can be a case study.

When Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared the coronavirus as a pandemic—the first of its kind since the H1N1 outbreak in 2009—he gave much credit for the significant drop in confirmed cases in Korea to the country’s aggressive diagnostic testing and robust management of so-called “contacts,” who are defined as those who have come into contact with coronavirus patients and other high-risk groups.

When it comes to testing, Korea is seen by some international health experts and media as a role model. Dr. Tedros noted Korea’s efforts to identify all cases and contacts, during his press briefing on March 11. Nearly 18,000 people are being tested every day for the coronavirus in Korea, more people per capita, by far, than any other country in the world. As of March 15, the cumulative number of diagnostic tests conducted in Korea had reached 268,212. This translates into roughly 1 out of 193 persons in Korea having been tested, an overwhelmingly high ratio compared to other affected countries. Building such an impressive diagnostic testing capacity was one of the most important lessons learned in the aftermath of previous outbreaks, such as H1N1 and MERS.

What makes Korea’s testing ability more impressive is its innovative and efficient method of conducting the tests. To better meet the mounting demand for tests, the medical community has set up a number of drive-through sample collection stations. This allows drivers to go through the process of registration and sample-taking procedures in under 10 minutes without needing to get out of their vehicles. This minimizes both pressure on hospitals and transmission risk by keeping potential patients out of hospital waiting rooms, and cuts time by eliminating the need for surface disinfection and other infection control measures needed for sample-taking within hospital walls.

Drivers do not need to get out of their car. Samples are quickly shipped off to nearby laboratories where medical staff are waiting. This Korean model is being studied as a benchmark by other countries, including the United States.

Coupled with such aggressive and so-called “pursue and track-down” testing, the Korean government adopts full transparency and openness in revealing information, in real time, about the virus. Some experts say that the high number of confirmed infections in the country is, in a sense, a case of Korea being a “victim of its own success”. As a matter of fact, such an approach is believed to save lives. As of March 16, the fatality rate for coronavirus in Korea was as low as around 0.9%.

There is another reason Korea’s preventive measures are being highly acclaimed. Korea has so far not implemented any lockdowns, roadblocks or restrictions on movement. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Korea has implemented a “special entry procedure”. Inbound travelers are requested to install a specially designed “Self Diagnosis Mobile Application” on their smartphones. Travelers have to update their health status everyday on the app for 14 days, and their health status is tracked by government authorities. Users highly appreciate such an innovative ICT-based tracking and monitoring mechanism. When exiting the country as well, Korea has introduced a very robust system to manage the outflow of the virus. Besides forbidding foreign travel of individuals identified as “contacts” who have come in contact with an infected patient, the government has set up an effective three-step temperature-monitoring program at the airport.

While the government is waging an all-out response, civil society has voluntarily pitched in as well. Major events have been canceled, church services have been moved online and companies encourage employees to work from home. A civil campaign for social distancing has been practiced in an orderly manner.

As WHO and other international experts have underscored, outright travel bans have limited effect in tackling the virus and, more importantly, have greater risk of creating panic and more serious unintended fallouts.

This year, the diplomatic relationship between Korea and Myanmar marks its 45th anniversary. The horizon of cooperation of our two friendly countries has steadily expanded, including fighting against transnational challenges. Needless to say, as Myanmar and Korea work together for a brighter future, building a stronger win-win partnership in addressing infectious diseases must be borne in mind.

Lee Sang-hwa is the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to Myanmar.

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