At the start of the pandemic, the situation in care homes looked particularly grim. One report on 19 March said: ‘Experts warn that hundreds of substandard long-term care facilities could serve as hotbeds for the contagious coronavirus.’ The alert came not from Wiltshire or Manchester, but from Park Chan-kyong, Seoul correspondent of the South China Morning Post. There was real fear that the residents of the city’s care homes would become victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet three months on, South Korea as a whole — let alone its care homes — has suffered fewer than 300 deaths nationwide. The world is asking: how?
Things have looked slightly worse recently — 49 new cases discovered last week — but this is nothing in comparison with Europe. Rather than imposing total lockdown, South Korea closed some schools and the rest of the country carried on. We’ve seen plenty of coverage on all this, along with its test and trace policy using mobile phone apps to identify and eliminate disease hotspots. This has inspired the UK government (and others) to develop its own test-and-trace app, but there has been less attention paid to the way that wider cultural factors have enabled South Korea to become, along with Taiwan and New Zealand, the poster child for effective virus control.
Let’s start with South Korea’s level of comfort with technology, backed up by some of the best 5G broadband in the world. At the last count, its internet penetration rate was 96 per cent, compared with around 81 per cent in the UK. South Korea did not reach this position by accident; rather it is the result of its decision over decades to mix state support and private-sector provision to create managed competition between the three telecoms companies that now provide 5G. Because this has been developed at home, only one of those carriers is thought to make use of Huawei equipment.
This last point captures the imagination of many in Washington: affordable 5G that’s not from China? But look deeper, and South Korea’s situation is not one of complete isolation from China’s tech sector. Huawei is a major customer for South Korea’s semiconductor chips, and there is significant technical cooperation between the two. China is also South Korea’s major trading partner overall (it does twice as much business with China as with the US, the next biggest partner). The technological capacity and funding to pay for the healthcare strategy that has kept South Korea safe and its economy open does not come free. It has meant hard–headed engagement with China — and a realistic decision that simply cutting off the region’s biggest economy is not possible.
Then come care homes. In England and Wales, their residents account for 3 per cent of pensioners but 29 per cent of Covid-19 deaths. In South Korea, there have been 274 Covid deaths overall but none in care homes. One explanation might be the country’s decade-long debate on how to deal with social care, which culminated in the establishment of a ‘long-term care insurance system’. Rather than being funded by taxes, South Korean care homes are financed via a contributory system with funding hypothecated to the specific needs of vulnerable older people.
The introduction of such a scheme was not a natural development in South Korea. Traditionally, the Confucian nature of East Asian society meant that putting one’s parents into a home to be cared for by others could be seen as a deeply unfilial act, although viewers of Ozu Yasujiro’s classic film Tokyo Story (1953) will know that smiling passive-aggressive neglect of ageing parents is not a new phenomenon in the region. However, recent years have seen an increasingly urgent conversation about demographics in South Korea.
Smaller families and the move from multi–generational houses to cramped apartments, and longevity leading to elders living on with conditions such as dementia, along with the traditional Confucian belief that the old should be valued, not hidden away, has forced more public conversations about the fate of elders. In practice, not all the 1,600 or so care homes in the country are microcosms of Confucian piety toward the old; many are reported to be poky and understaffed. But South Korea’s control strategy at least means they have not become death-traps.
The perennial threat from North Korea has also helped to create a sense of collective endeavour against danger, which can encourage social conformity. But the idea that South Koreans are hardened by dictatorship and don’t care about privacy is wide of the mark. On the contrary, its struggle against the authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee left a thriving, pluralist liberal democracy. When its citizens give up their privacy to provide huge amounts of personal data to the government for a virus-tracking app, they insist that the information will not be misused.
South Korea has plenty of problems. Last year’s Oscar-winning film Parasite showed a class and income gap in Seoul as wide as any in London. The legacy of the country’s dictatorship is recent enough to create divisions in its politics and culture. Yet its political and social culture has allowed its 50 million population to confront the virus and control it without either destroying the economy or compromising democracy — the incumbent social democratic government was re-elected in the middle of the pandemic. For other countries of a similar population size, sitting uneasily in their own regions, with lively democratic cultures riven by social tensions, there are plenty of lessons to learn.
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Rana Mitter’s new documentary Meanwhile in Beijing is available on BBC Sounds.
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