While South Korea has managed the COVID-19 pandemic adroitly, Lt. General (Ret.) In-Bum Chun warned at the end of a Zoom-based conference call members of the Southeast-U.S. Korean Chamber of Commerce on Monday, March 30, “We had better wake up now. While the death rates are fairly low, the next one won’t be so sure.”
The lieutenant three star general, who visits Atlanta regularly and has taught at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, spoke with 20 chamber members from his home in Seoul, South Korea.
He praised his country’s preparedness as a key in combating invading viruses like COVID-19, which he traced to its experiences with the H1N1 “swine flu” epidemic in 2009 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that hit the country in 2015.
As of March 30, he said that 400,000 South Koreans had been tested for COVID-19, 9,661 testing positive with 158 deaths. While 4,000 remained in bed, 5,228 had been released from hospitals.
“From mid-February to March, there were 500 on a daily basis (who tested positive), and now there are 100 a day,” he said, acknowledging some volatility. Most of the current cases, he added, are detected in Koreans who are coming home from other countries because they want to be treated by his country’s medical system, which he praised.
“Korea has a much more accessible system than the U.S.,” he added. “For instance I paid $4 to get my eyes checked recently and only $5 for a medication.”
Those Koreans who return home are placed immediately in a two-week quarantine, he said, and they are outfitted with a tracking device and app on their cellphones so their movements can be traced. With this data, not only are the individuals tracked but their acquaintances and interactions with others can be detected.
South Korea has been widely recognized for its data collection procedures. Lt. Gen. Chun said that to be tested Koreans had the option of choosing either “drive-thru” or “walk-thru” tests. Those who choose the “walk-thru” option at local hospitals need to wait only three minutes to take the test and will learn a few days later whether they have tested positively or negatively.
Meanwhile, foreigners are obliged to stay in modest hotels. The South Korean government paid the $4,000 bill for the hotel stay, but the visitors will have to pay starting next month.
In terms of government policy, he underscored that “honesty is the best policy” so that the general population, 50 million in South Korea, can be fully aware of what is happening and what it has to do. He also pointed to the widespread need for everyone to abide by measures such as social distancing, washing hands, limiting religious services and wearing masks, which, he said, have been readily available.
The pandemic broke out in South Korea, he added, because of a tight-knit religious service in Daegu which passed the virus to its members and then outside the church.
Even though South Korea has done well medically in response to COVID-19, it’s economy has suffered drastically, according to the lieutenant general. “The economic impact has been worse that 2008-09 with our stock market down 50-60 percent,” he said. “Small businesses are really hurting with sales down 90 percent.”
The main problem that small businesses will face even with government aid will be the difficulty in reclaiming their sales and accessing government support. “The problem for small businesses will be the red tape. You have to fast track that assistance and find out who are the bad guys (interfering with the distribution of support.)
Nor was he overly optimistic about a quick turnaround. Usually goods are imported, he said, from China, Vietnam or Malaysia. They are repackaged or reassembled in Korea and then exported. The supply chains have been disrupted and won’t be back in place immediately, he insinuated.
Much like in the U.S., on-line shopping was taking on greater importance and could benefit a recovery. “If you order carrots at 8 p.m.,” he said. “You will have them by 7 a.m. the next morning.”
But he didn’t support the government ’s plan to reimburse 70 percent of Korean households with $1,000 a month. “The Japanese tried that and it didn’t work well,” he added.
Nor was he totally confident that the health crisis was solved. Youngsters were still getting together to play games in video parlors.
“Unless we find a vaccine, it won’t be over,” he said.
To join a COVID-19 Impact conference, go to the chamber’s website at www.seuskcc.org/covid-19-conferences.html. The meeting links and dial-in details are provided on the site.