The United States reported 244,228 cases of COVID-19 as of 5:00 a.m. on April 3, according to The New York Times. The same morning, there were 10,062 cases in South Korea.
Both countries reported their first cases of COVID-19 on Jan. 20. By Feb. 16, 8,000 people had been tested for the virus in South Korea, while only 800 had been tested in the U.S.
The virus spread like wildfire in the U.S. in the weeks since the first cases were found. And due to a lack of testing, we still don’t know the full extent of cases in the country. Yet in a matter of weeks, South Korea was able to flatten the curve of infections with quick, coordinated intervention and widespread testing.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemics of the last two decades informed South Korea’s response to COVID-19.
Past South Korean governments learned from these crises and passed legislation that institutionalized broader central government powers in case of another public health emergency. These laws facilitated clear communication from the government regarding COVID-19, extensive testing and data collection that helped to disseminate relevant information to the public.
The testing strategy South Korea deployed to fight COVID-19 clamped down on the spread of the virus in weeks. UC Irvine associate professor of political science Bob Uriu credited successful containment to competent government leadership and a relationship of trust between the public and private sectors.
As soon as the government chose a strategy, it coordinated with private industry to produce and distribute test kits.
“Once they decided to act, and this came at the end of January, the Korean government used its institutions,” Uriu said. “They put into operation this incredible thing where the labs created a test within a few weeks. The industry was creating the number of tests that would be needed.”
Similar to South Korea, Taiwan responded to COVID-19 in a decisive manner, enacting travel restrictions early on and conducting contact-tracing, a practice whereby individuals who have been in contact with a positive case of COVID-19 are tracked down, tested and quarantined if necessary.
In both countries, institutionalized relationships between the government and the public health sector, as well as universal healthcare, provided a strong foundation for proactive containment.
“The lesson from East Asia is that, to the extent they were successful, they stopped it before it spread,” Uriu said. “And once you have the widespread, then you’re into this phase of just trying to keep up with ventilators and people dying and all of that.”
Compared to Taiwan and South Korea, the U.S. response to the virus was slow and lacked cooperation among the federal government, industry and society.
The explanation lies in the country’s history of decentralized, limited government and the Trump administration’s failure to take a proactive approach to testing before the pandemic spun out of control.
“I think the U.S. has done a great job in eviscerating our central ability to react to something like this,” Uriu said.
Once the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the U.S. in late January, the government found itself in a disadvantageous position to respond to the crisis. Without a strong central government capable of connecting the productive capabilities of private industry with the public sector, the country’s only hope was an organized executive leadership that would be transparent with the public about what needed to happen to stop the spread of the virus.
Instead, the Trump administration downplayed the threat of COVID-19 in the U.S. and took few proactive measures to contain the virus.
“The reason [the lack of testing] has been such a damaging shortcoming in the U.S. response is it basically left us blind to the spread of the virus in our country for about six or seven weeks,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, in an interview with The Washington Post.
For weeks, Trump maintained that the epidemic was “under control,” even as the number of cases surged by the thousands.
“I can’t think of a leader who’s less suited for a moment like this,” professor Bob Uriu said.
Although the number of cases in the U.S. has been growing exponentially by the day, we still have a chance to slow it down. But it will take a massive and coordinated effort.
Trump needs to invoke the Defense Production Act immediately to increase the production of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, ventilators, test kits and other necessary supplies.
Most importantly, the U.S. needs extensive testing so that everyone with the virus and everyone who has been in contact with an infected person can self-isolate. Such testing would lift the shelter-in-place order most of the nation is under, ending the paralyzation of the economy and allowing a semblance of everyday life to resume.
“We could do it. But whether we do it is really a matter of leadership,” Uriu said. “Trump did say it’s a war, and if he acted like a wartime president and really mobilized everything, I would feel more confident.”