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South Korea proves pandemic response requires more than money

South Korea’s government is spending nearly $10 billion to fight novel coronavirus, which has infected nearly 8,000 people there. But the effort to contain the illness requires more than just money -- entire communities must come together, sharing information, volunteering at testing centers and limiting consumption of vital medical supplies. Bruce Harrison of Feature Story News reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we go to South Korea to see what seems to be working in the fight against COVID-19.

    The government there is spending nearly $10 billion to fight the country's outbreak.

    As special correspondent Bruce Harrison discovers, money is just part of the fight. It also takes communities willing to come together.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Kim Kyoung-Soo took off work as a bus driver to pitch in on what's become the national priority here, defeating COVID-19. Now he's volunteering at this drive-through test clinic.

  • Kim Kyuong-Soo (through translator):

    As citizens, we're here for the safety of our fellow citizens, to volunteer for Goyang City.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Anyone can pull in, with or without symptoms. This local office worker is here just as a precaution.

    He tells nurses he recently smoked a cigarette with someone who may have been in contact with infected people. After taking his temperature, they say he seems symptom-free for now, but to come back if that changes.

    Others receive a much more thorough exam based on their physical symptoms and potential exposure to confirmed patients. Thousands of Koreans have driven through this clinic in the past two weeks. It's free, takes 10 minutes, and you get results in two to three days.

  • Lee Jae Joon:

    Staying sick longer only increases costs and puts people's lives in danger. You must find them quickly, and you must not be frugal about the costs. It's the state's basic duty to support the lives of its people.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    More than 200,000 South Koreans have now been tested. Top health officials gathered this week in Seoul to share their results, and they didn't skimp on precautions in a room full of journalists.

  • Kim Gang-Lip:

    With a transparent and open society as the goal, we recommend a response system that blends voluntary public participation with creative application of advanced technology.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Text messages alert the public to the location of confirmed cases, and quarantined patients update the government on their health via smartphone app.

    Seoul has rejected citywide lockdowns and left its borders open to everyone except those coming from the hardest-hit region of China.

  • Lee Tae-Ho:

    The general consensus among public health care professionals seems to be that travel bans are not effective in containing contagious illnesses, and can make things worse, even, by fueling a sense of complacency.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Korea's neighbors China and Japan disagree, banning travelers from South Korea's worst-affected regions. Despite tougher quarantine measures, Japan is struggling ahead of the prized Summer Olympics.

    South Korea largely credits mass testing for its relatively low death ratio among hard-hit areas. The country's ratio is less than 1 percent, compared to more than 4 percent in Iran and 6 percent in Italy.

    And today, during a Pentagon videoconference, the top U.S. commander in South Korea also credited testing for keeping COVID-19 off U.S. bases, testing initially done by the Koreans.

  • Gen. Robert Abrams:

    They have been extraordinary partners. We typically got our test results turned around in 24 hours.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    One U.S. service member and eight others connected to the U.S. military here have tested positive, but General Robert Abrams said strict controls and transparency prevented a larger outbreak.

  • Gen. Robert Abrams:

    For example, daily livestreamed community briefings by our garrison and installation commanders, with questions and answers, as well as multiple virtual town halls with our senior commanders.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Most Korean cases have been limited to the country's southeast, but recent cluster infections in Seoul may test the Korean model for success.

    This testing center was set up specifically for residents and employees of this building, where there's been a large outbreak of COVID-19. And as you can see behind me, a gentleman has just sat down. He's beginning the testing procedure.

    The outbreak here has really concerned this community. A lot of small businesses, restaurants and cafes have closed down temporarily. And perhaps more concerning is that right along this area runs one of Seoul's most busy metro lines.

    Typically, hundreds of thousands of people transfer at Sindorim station every day. There's now just a trickle during rush hour, now that there's been an outbreak up the road.

    One area in this neighborhood where foot traffic hasn't slowed is outside of pharmacies. The government has limited customers to just two masks a week to make sure health care workers get what they need first.

    Still, there's no panic here, as people in this community come together to cope.

  • Lee (through translator):

    I'd like to buy more masks, but I know, if I did that, others wouldn't be able to. So, I feel I shouldn't.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    He says foreigners who don't find masks necessary may have a change of heart as the coronavirus continues its deadly global march.

    "You have to experience it personally," he says, "to understand."

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Bruce Harrison in Seoul.

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