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Working together, South Koreans turn COVID-19 hot zone into containment leader

South Korea has transformed from a COVID-19 hot zone to a leader in the global fight against the virus. Companies there are now making millions of test kits for export, and the public is voting in a parliamentary election despite the disease. Special correspondent Bruce Harrison reports from Seoul on how South Koreans have worked together to make progress -- and aim to prevent a virus resurgence.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    South Korea has turned from a COVID-19 hot zone to a leader in the global fight against the new coronavirus.

    Companies there are now making millions of virus test kits for export, and the public is voting in a parliamentary election, despite the epidemic.

    Correspondent Bruce Harrison reports from Seoul on how the Koreans have worked together to get this far and aim to prevent a resurgence of the virus.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    To visit this factory, you can't risk contaminating the product. The work going on behind this door may just save your life.

    Manufacturer Bak Jin-Wook says they're putting chemical agents into vials and sealing the lids. The assembly line at South Korean firm Gencurix is small. But the chemicals they're packaging just today can be used in up to 150,000 COVID-19 tests. This is the final product.

  • Sangrae Cho (through translator):

    Each of these kits can be used to test up to 100 people. A sample is collected from the patient's nose or mouth. A method called PCR is used to confirm the diagnosis, which takes three to four hours.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    The company jumped into action, researching test kits in this lab in January when it heard about the first coronavirus death in Wuhan.

    South Korea learned the importance of early diagnosis during the 2015 outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, a viral respiratory illness similar to COVID-19. In theory, the faster you test, the faster you're able to isolate infected people and stem the spread of the virus.

    The government worked with Gencurix and other companies this year to produce test kits, so they could quickly receive regulatory approval to test Koreans.

  • Hyun Park:

    Although we are not doctors or nurses, we feel that we are also fighting coronaviruses. So, we feel it's very important in the world, although it's a good business opportunity for us. But it's a very sad situation.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    South Korea ran a textbook response to COVID-19 and has tested nearly 530,000 people. More than 10,500 have tested positive, and 222 have died, for a death rate of just over 2 percent, half that of the United States.

    With no shortage of kits here, Gencurix is exporting tens of thousands all over the world. It plans to boost that number and send many to the U.S. once it receives FDA approval.

    South Korea's success at home against COVID-19, and its international reputation as a leader in battling the pandemic, have given a boost to President Moon Jae-in. And it may have come at just the right time, with today's parliamentary election.

    Moon has shouldered much of the blame for Korea's slowing economy. But the government's COVID-19 response may help extend his party's majority in Parliament. Moon has made election safety a top priority.

    People had to have their temperature taken and wear rubber gloves and masks to vote. Lines were marked to keep voters at least three feet apart, and quarantined citizens could only leave home for a short time to vote after the polls had first closed for the rest of the public.

    But it'll take more than a safe election to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19. In this low-income neighborhood, professionals from the Korean Pest Control Association always announce their arrival. And the goal is to be as swift and nondisruptive as possible. They pay for the supplies and disinfectant out of pocket.

    This volunteer says the residents have very little money, so groups like his disinfect the building to keep it safe. Dozens of residents here share a single kitchen or bathroom, but it's still outbreak-free.

  • Im Jae-Chul (through translator):

    These people lack medical care, and most of them are marginalized and lonely. Personally, I'm thankful that some people are still concerned about us.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Residents can also get free face masks at a nearby community center. Center director Bae Il Hwan explains to a resident she will need to throw out her disposable mask if she wears it several times. But she can always come back for a new one.

    Seoul has extended a social distancing campaign through the end of the week. The government wants the public to stay home, aside from going to work, visiting a doctor or buying necessities.

    In the early weeks of the outbreak here, most people tried to stay home, but that's now proving challenging.

    There is no lockdown or even a shelter-in-place order, but the government does have its concerns, for one, these beautiful cherry blossoms. It's the spring flowers and the warm weather in general that are drawing people out in very large numbers, threatening the success of social distancing.

    Seoul nightlife is also making a comeback. Some bars in this neighborhood shut down, but only temporarily. Others are operating at a loss, even with improved traffic.

  • Im Soo Jin (through translator):

    We have great preventive measures and a health care system to back us up. Of course, everyone's health is the most important issue, but we have to go on with our lives.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    And that may be easier, as Im suggests, in a country with single-payer health care that she seems to trust, as perhaps her patrons do as well.

    And nothing quite marks spring in Seoul like a picnic by the Han River. Like the election, there are precautions here, from signs urging people to keep their distance and bottles of free hand sanitizer. But, unlike the election, there doesn't appear to be any enforcement.

  • Woo Chan:

    The convenience store, like, we were just in there. The line is huge. And that's probably not a good thing if you want to practice social distancing.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    The growing trash heap near the store says a lot, namely, Seoul is ready to get back to normal.

    But it's also a sign the people are confident their efforts and those of the government have made it possible this soon.

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

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