For the past several months, the Republic of Korea and Singapore have been engaged in a whole-of-nation fight against Covid-19. As countries whose economic development has depended to a large extent on openness and global connectivity, both were among the early victims of this deadly virus.
At this juncture, the Republic of Korea has been able to flatten the curve and is moving on to the next stage by gradually returning to normal socioeconomic activities while maintaining safe distancing measures in daily life.
Singapore, on its part, has also made significant progress against this insidious disease and is successfully turning the tide.
It has been a hard-fought effort for my country to reach this point. It saw its Covid-19 cases surge weeks ahead of much of the rest of the world, hitting a peak of 909 confirmed cases on Feb 29. Now, the numbers are in the single digits.
As of yesterday, there were 10,810 cases in a population of 51.8 million. Since the first case emerged on Jan 20, 9,419 patients (87.13 per cent) have been discharged and 256 (2.37 per cent) have died as a result of complications arising from Covid-19. New cases have dwindled to mostly a handful - there were four yesterday and just over a dozen in total in the past few days.
With a national capacity of up to 20,000 tests per day, about 650,000 tests have been conducted so far.
Three principles have underpinned the Republic of Korea's ability to come to grips with Covid-19: openness, transparency and civic engagement.
First, the openness principle guided the government in introducing measures proportionate to the level of risk at both its borders and domestically.
At its borders, it initially sought to monitor inbound travellers rather than impose an entry ban. But, faced with deteriorating conditions, it decided later to introduce more restrictive measures such as mandatory testing and a 14-day quarantine for all travellers, including citizens, on arrival as well as a temporary suspension of visa waivers.
These measures will in time be eased in tandem with risk assessment findings. In the meantime, the country's borders will remain open, even to short-term visitors considered essential personnel as well as to individuals on humanitarian grounds.
Domestically, the government did not resort to lockdowns, not even in the most severely affected areas, namely the city of Daegu and North Gyeongsang province.
Instead, the government ensured freedom of movement and allowed daily life to continue by relying on a combination of intensive testing - not least through the globally acclaimed "drive-through" testing sites and "walk-through" testing booths - thorough contact tracing and prompt and effective medical care for those infected.
As for the collection and use of personal information in the course of epidemiological investigation, these are carried out scrupulously, in keeping with domestic regulations as well as the relevant international human rights law.
TRANSPARENCY, TRUST AND TECH
Second, transparency and trust are key components of Seoul's success in containing the contagion. From the onset of this pandemic, the government has viewed Covid-19 information as a public good. It has maintained the public's trust with its precise, transparent and prompt sharing of information, both good and bad.
The latest policies and data on case numbers are updated and disseminated daily; anonymised data sets of confirmed cases are released to support global research such as the #opendata4covid19 project; and information on the places visited by people found to have the disease and when they visited are shared with the public while protecting the infected individuals' identity and privacy.
The interplay of technology and the private sector also helped in containing the outbreak. Seamless access to information allowed the private sector to develop apps that not only help with contact tracing, but also monitor the inventory of masks in drugstores throughout the country. In fact, the "drive-through" testing sites and "walk-through" testing booths were initiatives proposed by the private sector.
Finally, tech prowess is insufficient without civic engagement.
The government saw its citizens not just as an object of containment and quarantine, but as allies and active participants in the fight against Covid-19. It supported the voluntary participation of the private sector and gained from its innovative capabilities.
Nowhere was the power of civic engagement more evident than in Daegu. Even as this city of 2.5 million people struggled with nearly 7,000 Covid-19 cases, it was never placed on a formal lockdown. Its people voluntarily stayed home and supported other preventive measures such as social distancing. Volunteers across the nation rushed to Daegu to provide help in any way they can.
The spirit of active civic engagement was also on full display during the first nationwide election to be held globally amid the Covid-19 crisis. The decision to proceed with the Korean legislative election on April 15 was based on national consensus built through discussions involving political parties and diverse civic groups. The mature observance of public order enabled the highest voter turnout in 28 years, with zero Covid-19 infection arising from the huge numbers who turned up to cast their ballots.
SCOPE FOR GREATER COOPERATION
One of the key lessons my country has learnt is that uncoordinated decisions by individual governments can only do so much to curtail the spread of a virus that respects no borders.
Shutting borders is unsustainable in our interdependent globalised world. And yet, as countries consider reopening their borders, it is troubling that we will be only as strong as our weakest link to prevent a resurgence of the outbreak globally. That is why international cooperation is more critical than ever, and in this regard, Singapore and the Republic of Korea can work together to create synergy between our two systems that have evolved through the fights against Sars and H1N1 (and also Mers in Seoul's case).
Both have become more advanced since, along with advances in information and communications technology that have strengthened the capabilities of nationwide smart networks. We can first test new initiatives bilaterally and then go on to jointly export our success regionally and globally.
President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised the need for such cooperation at the Extraordinary Virtual Group of 20 (G-20) Leaders' Summit in March and at the Special Asean Plus Three Summit last month. More concrete ideas for bilateral cooperation were further discussed among high-level diplomatic and trade officials. Both our countries are continuing to share all available information on Covid-19. There is scope to do more as the world braces itself for secondary waves of infections.
The risks of any crisis come also with opportunities. What we have before us is an opportunity for Singapore and the Republic of Korea to expand our bilateral cooperation and together, contribute regionally and globally in the protracted battle against Covid-19.
• Ahn Youngjip is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Singapore.
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