Fighting COVID-19 together will strengthen Mekong-Korea partnership

At the Mekong-Republic of Korea special summit in Busan last November, leaders in attendance 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, now 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” has become 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 the director-general of the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, the first of its kind since the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gave much credit to the significant drop in confirmed cases in South Korea for to its 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, South Korea is seen by some of the international health experts and media as a role model. WHO Director-General Tedros noted South Korea’s efforts to identify all cases and contacts, during his press briefing on 11 March. Nearly 18,000 people are being tested every day for the coronavirus in South 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 South Korea has reached 268,212. This translates into roughly 1 out of 193 persons in South 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 South Korea’s testing ability more impressive is its innovative and efficient method of conducting it. 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 minimises 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 being quickly shipped off to nearby laboratories where medical staff tested them. This 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 South Korean government takes full transparency and openness in revealing information, in real time, about the virus. Some experts say that the high number of confirmed cases in South Korea is, in a sense, a victim of its own success. As a matter of fact, such an approach is believed to save lives. Fatality rate for coronavirus in South Korea is as low as around 0.9 percent as of 16 March.

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

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

As WHO and other international experts 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, diplomatic relationship between South 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 South Korea work together for a brighter future, building a stronger win-win partnership in addressing infectious diseases must be borne in mind.

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Source: Myanmar Times

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