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Column: Why is coronavirus testing important? An eyewitness account from East Asia

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                A woman wearing a face mask passes by posters about precautions against new coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, March 21.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A woman wearing a face mask passes by posters about precautions against new coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, March 21.

Living in East Asia for the past two years has never been boring. I was assigned to the region amid “Rocket Man’s” weekly provocations in 2017. After arriving, peace initiation broke out between North and South Korea, so again, the region became the center of attention. And now … COVID-19.

The world is once again focusing on South Korea, as they combat this virus. South Korean authorities admit that it is impossible to completely ward off COVID-19. They are controlling the spread so they can avoid a huge surge that would overwhelm their health-care system.

COVID-19 spreads extremely fast and can cause serious deterioration of respiratory systems requiring medical attention — thus potentially creating a situation where people who can be saved die due to limited resources. So, South Korea has been testing as many people as possible to identify sources of transmission and isolate them from the public, controlling the number of patients the health-care system has to handle, avoiding a tsunami of COVID-19 cases.

COVID-19 has an incubation period of two to 14 days. During that time, a carrier is contagious, even while not showing symptoms. Further, some people may not get very sick at all. Therefore, early detection and isolation of carriers is extremely important to control the speed of the virus. By isolating and quarantining carriers, South Korea is hoping to keep the speed of the pandemic at a controlled level.

In fact, the opposite was the reason why there were so many deaths in China at the beginning: they missed the window they could control the spread, and the medical system had to meet a surge of incoming patients, which resulted in many deaths of even young and healthy people who could have survived the virus.

In South Korea now, many buildings control their entrances, scanning all who enter. If a fever is detected, you are tested. If the result is positive, you are quarantined or hospitalized depending on your condition. Tests are free if you have reasonable doubt of infection. If you volunteer to test for peace of mind, the cost is about $150. However, if the result is positive, you are refunded the full amount, and the medical treatment is free.

When infection is identified, authorities trace everywhere the infected person visited and sanitize the area. Text messages are sent out informing the population about the infected area, and provide guidance to visit a nearby testing location if anybody had visited the area. Stores that were visited by the infected are closed and sanitized.

Authorities are sweeping inch by inch to fight against this disease, and as of today, without having to practice any shelter-in-place lockdown, South Korea has managed to reduce the daily number of new patients. They flattened the curve.

The Korean model might not be ideal for the U.S., and honestly, I don’t know how long their method will work. However, there is one thing we need to learn from them: Koreans have found a way to live together and move forward to a singular goal together. Our individual lives have never been so dependent upon one another. We, the people of the U.S., whose individualist ideal is at our very core, need to learn to put aside individualism and work together.

The health-care and medical systems should no longer be partisan issues, as this kind of pandemic will likely become more common in the future. This is our problem, as a collective, as a society, as a species. And damn the cost, because the survival of us as a people is more important than somebody’s bottom line. Are we ready to face the future together?


Yeoun Varley, who has a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Hawaii, is assigned in East Asia by the U.S. government.


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