Devotees wear protective face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus (COVID-19) while praying at Lungshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, March 12, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Ann Wang
Culture Spotlight

From phone-tracking to drive-thru testing: How Taiwan and Korea are crushing the COVID-19 crisis

They learned their lessons from their bouts with MERS and SARS — and they have foresight By DAHL BENNETT
| Mar 21 2020

From ‘Big Brother-styled’ monitoring to drive-thru testing, Taiwan and South Korea are doing something radical and right in their response to COVID-19. Notably, S. Korea has one of the biggest numbers of cases in the world at 8,000 plus close to that of France and the US but has recorded one of the lowest fatalities so far at 94.

Taiwan, on the other hand, has a recorded fatality to date of 1 person out of 108 cases--this number despite the island’s proximity to mainland China and the fact that 850,000 of its citizens work and live there. At its narrowest point, Taiwan is only 130 kilometers away from its giant neighbor but this interconnectedness did not stop it from impressively containing the spread of the virus. Despite the irony, Taiwan’s success is thanks in part to its hostile relationship with China as it has learned to be self-reliant and fight a mammoth crisis like COVID-19 without the latter’s help.  

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So what is Taiwan and South Korea doing right?  A lot and it is not just as simple as having a sound national health system in place but also a proactive government, a cooperative citizenry, and the foresight to utilize available technology, that is not necessarily high-tech or complex, for tracking.  

The Philippines, which has yet to see the peak of the outbreak, might have a thing or two -- or three--to learn from their Asian counterparts as it tackles an unseen enemy like the coronavirus.

 

1. Utilizing technology for tracking and protecting the community

The Guardian shares the story of Shawn Bryant who was placed on quarantine for two weeks once he arrived in Taiwan after a trip from Daejeon, South Korea. Taiwan was his last stop en route to his home country in Canada. What was notable in Bryant’s experience is the ‘Big Brother-ish” automated messages he would receive on his phone from the police that apparently monitored his whereabouts the minute he arrived there. When his taxi was “going too far” from his designated Airbnb accommodation, he was sent a message that he would be fined if he didn’t go back immediately.  “Using phone tracking to enforce mandatory quarantine is one example of how Taiwan has managed to contain the spread of coronavirus,” wrote The Guardian.

Medical staff in protective gear work at a 'drive-thru' testing center for the novel coronavirus disease of COVID-19 in Yeungnam University Medical Center in Daegu, South Korea, March 3, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

Apart from phone tracking, Taipei’s use of the Quick Response (QR) code scanning and online reporting to trace travel history and health symptoms of travelers also contributed to the systematic identification of individuals who could be potential carriers of the coronavirus. The country has also a designated digital minister who “utilized artificial intelligence to harness data and created real-time digital updates to alert citizens of risky areas to avoid and a live map of local supplies of face masks,” according to abcnews.go.com.

South Korea, on the other hand, used information from CCTV and debit and credit card transactions to warn communities about previous whereabouts of a person who has tested positive for the virus. “A typical alert can contain the infected person’s age and gender, and a detailed log of their movements down to the minute ... with the time and names of businesses they visited,” wrote the website nature.com. South Korea is one of the biggest users of cashless forms of payment in the world, giving its government better access to the needed data.

While both measures may be perceived as treading the thin line of invading an individual’s right to privacy, it still proved to be one of the most efficient methods for tracing that has worked in a more tolerant society like South Korea and Taiwan.  

 

2. Learning from past outbreaks

The 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and 2015 Middle East respiratory Syndrome ( MERS) outbreaks were lessons well learned for countries like Taiwan and South Korea. Their experiences with both epidemics prompted them to review their disease control system and come up with new and relevant health policies and laws giving them a good advantage in containing the spread of the virus compared to countries that share more or less the same number of cases as theirs.

Its experience from MERS had South Korea develop a large-capacity healthcare system and a sophisticated biotech industry that can produce test kits quickly. “These factors enable the country to carry out 15,000 tests per day, making it second only to China in absolute numbers and third in the world for per person testing,” according to The Conversation journal.  MERS has also given South Korea the chance to reorganize the Korean Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) that today has the support of both private and public sectors. Its creation of a designated branch for testing and diagnosing then prepared them well for the COVID-19 crisis.  

A devotee has his hands sanitized to protect himself from the coronavirus (COVID-19), before entering Lungshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, March 12, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Ann Wang

Taiwan, for its part, learned from their mistakes during the 2003 SARS experience which then killed 73 people in the country. They have “put in place a public health emergency response mechanism that enabled experienced officials to quickly recognize the crisis at hand and respond with efficient, culturally sensitive policies that helped contain the spread and significantly minimize deaths,” read the same article in abcnews.go.com.

Implementing these mechanisms is Taiwan’s government-established National Health Command Center (NHCC) that manages resources and is a trusted source of updates and briefing for the citizens.

 

3. Conducting intensive testing and having a strong healthcare system in place

The efficiency with which Taiwan and S. Korea traced and tested individuals afforded them to minimize, if not, totally forgo lockdowns.

Taiwan, ever since the outbreak, has not had to close down businesses or stop work and school.  Their best weapon yet was their swift response and implementing thorough tracking, tracing, and testing. They were one of the first countries to ban flights from Wuhan.

With intensive tracing and tracking in place, they allowed business to go on and made sure organizations and establishments practiced social distancing and implemented measures such as temperature checks and using sanitizers before letting people inside their premises.

While border controls and social distancing were also some of the tested measures applied by South Korea in its fight against COVID-19, perhaps it’s most applauded action yet is the efficiency and scale of its free testing.  Through its innovative drive-through testing, it is able to cover 15,000 people daily.  Swabbing was conducted on individuals inside the safety of their cars, the results of which were sent to them via SMS.

mployees from a disinfection service company sanitize a subway car depot amid coronavirus fears in Seoul, South Korea, March 11, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Heo Ran 

As of March 13, the total number of new cases in South Korea numbered 110 and as of this writing, it is down to 87. NPR.org has noted that S. Korea has conducted 3,600 tests per million people compared to five per million in the U.S.

As the situation continues to improve, establishments in S. Korea are beginning to see some normalcy. Even it’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art has planned to reopen its four locations on March 23.

Complementing these countries’ systematic and extensive testing are their enviable healthcare systems that have been updated, reorganized, and upgraded from their past experiences with MERS and SARS.  Knowing there is a sound healthcare system in place, medical costs are the least of their citizen’s concerns. Yes, their governments got their back long before the COVID-19 outbreak.