How South Korea Flattened the Coronavirus Curve

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No matter how you look at the numbers, one country stands out from the rest: South Korea.


In late February and early March, the number of new coronavirus infections in the country exploded from a few dozen, to a few hundred, to several thousand.

At the peak, medical workers identified 909 new cases in a single day, Feb. 29, and the country of 50 million people appeared on the verge of being overwhelmed. But less than a week later, the number of new cases halved. Within four days, it halved again — and again the next day.

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On Sunday, South Korea reported only 64 new cases, the fewest in nearly a month, even as infections in other countries continue to soar by the thousands daily, devastating health care systems and economies. Italy records several hundred deaths daily; South Korea has not had more than eight in a day.

South Korea is one of only two countries with large outbreaks, alongside China, to flatten the curve of new infections. And it has done so without China’s draconian restrictions on speech and movement, or economically damaging lockdowns like those in Europe and the United States.

As global deaths from the virus surge past 15,000, officials and experts worldwide are scrutinizing South Korea for lessons. And those lessons, while hardly easy, appear relatively straightforward and affordable: swift action, widespread testing and contact tracing, and critical support from citizens.

Yet other hard-hit nations did not follow South Korea’s lead. Some have began to show interest in emulating its methods — but only after the epidemic had accelerated to the point that they may not be able to control it any time soon.

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden have both called South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, to request details on the country’s measures, according to Mr. Moon’s office.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has hailed South Korea as demonstrating that containing the virus, while difficult, “can be done.” He urged countries to “apply the lessons learned in Korea and elsewhere.”

South Korean officials caution that their successes are tentative. A risk of resurgence remains, particularly as epidemics continue raging beyond the country’s borders.

Still, Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has repeatedly raised South Korea as a model, writing on Twitter, “South Korea is showing Covid-19 can be beat with smart, aggressive public health.”

Lesson 1: Intervene Fast, Before It’s a Crisis

Just one week after the country’s first case was diagnosed in late January, government officials met with representatives from several medical companies. They urged the companies to begin immediately developing coronavirus test kits for mass production, promising emergency approval.

Within two weeks, though South Korea’s confirmed cases remained in the double digits, thousands of test kits were shipping daily. The country now produces 100,000 kits per day, and officials say they are in talks with 17 foreign governments about exporting them.

Officials also swiftly imposed emergency measures in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million where contagion spread fast through a local church.

“South Korea could deal with this without limiting the movement of people because we knew the main source of infection, the church congregation, pretty early on,” said Ki Mo-ran, an epidemiologist advising the government’s coronavirus response. “If we learned about it later than we did, things could have been far worse.”

South Koreans, unlike Europeans and Americans, were also primed to treat the coronavirus as a national emergency, after a 2015 outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in the country killed 38.

The coronavirus is thought to have a five-day incubation period, often followed by a period of mild symptoms that could be mistaken for a cold, when the virus is highly communicable. This pattern creates a lag of a week or two before an outbreak becomes apparent. What looks like a handful of cases can be hundreds; what looks like hundreds can be thousands.

“Such characteristics of the virus render the traditional response, which emphasizes lockdown and isolation, ineffective,” said Kim Gang-lip, South Korea’s vice health minister. “Once it arrives, the old way is not effective in stopping the disease from spreading.”

Lesson 2: Test Early, Often and Safely

South Korea has tested far more people for the coronavirus than any other country, enabling it to isolate and treat many people soon after they are infected.

The country has conducted over 300,000 tests, for a per-capita rate more than 40 times that of the United States.

“Testing is central because that leads to early detection, it minimizes further spread and it quickly treats those found with the virus,” Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, told the BBC, calling the tests “the key behind our very low fatality rate as well.”

Though South Korea is sometimes portrayed as having averted an epidemic, thousands of people were infected and the government was initially accused of complacency. Its approach to testing was designed to turn back an outbreak already underway.

To spare hospitals and clinics from being overwhelmed, officials opened 600 testing centers designed to screen as many people as possible, as quickly as possible — and keep health workers safe by minimizing contact.

  • Slide 1 of 51: A woman walks her dog under a

  • Slide 2 of 51: Timed to the current outbreak of the worldwide coronavirus, Covid-Free Cupcakes with icing masks are on display in the Cheesecake House and Restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, March 23, 2020. The cupcakes cost just under a U.S. dollar.  (

  • Slide 3 of 51: President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Washington, as Attorney General William Barr and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, listen. (

  • Slide 4 of 51: VENICE, CALIFORNIA  - MARCH 23: People walk at safe distances on Venice Breach on March 23, 2020 in Venice, California. Parking lots at a number of popular beaches including Venice and Santa Monica beaches were closed today after crowds were seen on some beaches this weekend during the coronavirus pandemic. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti yesterday urged Angelenos again to practice physical distancing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by


  • Slide 5 of 51: Medical staff watch people waiting in line to get a coronavirus test outside the La Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, Monday March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (

  • Slide 6 of 51: Police forces talk to a pedestrian as they watch over the freshly issued curfew in the streets of Bucharest on March 23, 2020 amid the spread of the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus). - A general curfew betwen 10pm-6am was issued except for the employees who must have a declaration from the employer to be shown to the control authorities. Romania had confirmed 576 cases of the novel coronavirus and seven deaths as of March 23. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP) (Photo by

  • Slide 7 of 51: Vice President Mike Pence speaks as he leads a video teleconference with governors about the coronavirus, during a trip to FEMA, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Washington. (

  • Slide 8 of 51: TUNIS, TUNISIA - MARCH 23: Streets are seen empty after the nation-wide quarantine was declared as part of measures to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic in Sidi Bou Said town, near Tunis, Tunisia  on March 23, 2020. (Photo by

  • Slide 9 of 51: NITEROI, BRAZIL - MARCH 23: Members of a cleaning crew wearing protective suits spray public places with a disinfectant solution at Icarai neighborhood on March 23, 2020 in Niteroi, Brazil. These measures are aimed at stopping the spreading of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. According to the Ministry of Health, as of Monday, March 23, Brazil had 1.546 confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and at least 25 recorded deaths. (Photo by


  • Slide 10 of 51: CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS  - MARCH 23: Guidelines for limiting purchases of high demand items on the shelves at Target on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses to close by noon on March 24 in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19.  Grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open, and restaurants will still be able to sell food for take-out service. (Photo by

  • Slide 11 of 51: LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 23: Seating areas closed off at McDonalds, Eltham branch, during the last day of trading on March 23, 2020 in London, England. McDonald's, Nando's and Costa Coffee were among the businesses who closed their UK stores this week due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Last week, the British government ordered all restaurants to close but exempted those offering take-out. Several closed nonetheless, citing the wellbeing of their employees and customers.  (Photo by

  • Slide 12 of 51: Members of Joint Task Force 2, composed of soldiers and airmen from the New York Army and Air National Guard, arrive to sanitize and disinfect the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue, as snow falls during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in New Rochelle, New York, U.S., March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

  • Slide 13 of 51: Employees of the Vienna International Airport reload boxes with medical protective gear during the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Vienna International Airport in Schwechat, Austria March 23, 2020. Georg Hochmuth/Pool via REUTERS

  • Slide 14 of 51: Filipino street dwellers rest in tents, set up as a makeshift evacuation centre, amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Manila, Philippines, March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY


  • Slide 15 of 51: A woman wearing a face mask arrives at the South Municipal cemetery in Madrid, on March 23, 2020, to attend the burial of a man who died of the new coronavirus. - The coronavirus death toll in Spain surged to 2,182 after 462 people died within 24 hours, the health ministry said. The death rate showed a 27-percent increase on the figures released a day earlier, with the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rising to 33,089 in Spain, one of the worst-hit countries in the world after China and Italy. (Photo by BALDESCA SAMPER / AFP) (Photo by BALDESCA SAMPER/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Slide 16 of 51: IZMIR, TURKEY - MARCH 23: A drone photo shows nearly empty highways after precautions against coronavirus (Covid-19), including call for

  • Slide 17 of 51: Alice and Joseph Wilkinson take part in a youtube P.E. class at their home in Manchester, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Manchester, Britain, March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble

  • Slide 18 of 51: A Buddhist monk has his temperature checked after a chant session in a pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Mar. 23, 2020. Buddhist pagodas in Cambodia on Monday offered prayer, chanting and strikes of gongs and drums in attempts to chase away the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

  • Slide 19 of 51: SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 23: A family watches a movie from their car at a drive-in theater as South Koreans take measures to protect themselves against the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 23, 2020 in the Seongdong district of Seoul, South Korea. South Korea has called for expanded public participation in social distancing for the next two weeks, as the country witnesses a wave of community spread and imported infections leading to a resurgence in new cases of COVID-19. According to the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday, 64 new cases were reported. The total number of infections in the nation tallies at 8,961.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

  • Slide 20 of 51: Workers assemble a temporary field hospital at the Pacaembu Stadium during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

  • Slide 21 of 51: People travel in a crowded bus to return to their cities and villages before the start of the lockdown by West Bengal state government to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kolkata, India March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

  • Slide 22 of 51: Times Square stands mostly empty as  as much of the city is void of cars and pedestrians over fears of spreading the coronavirus on March 22, 2020 in New York City. Across the country schools, businesses and places of work have either been shut down or are restricting hours of operation as health officials try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

  • Slide 23 of 51: Prime Minister Scott Morrison covers his mouth during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on March 23, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. Parliament is sitting as scheduled but with restrictions in place to limit the number of people in chamber to observe social distancing rules in place due to COVID-19. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced late on Sunday that from midday Monday, venues such as bars, clubs, nightclubs, cinemas, gyms and restaurants, along with anywhere people remain static would be closed. Schools remain open but parents have the option to keep children at home if they wish while Victoria is bringing forward school holidays from Tuesday. There are now 1353 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia and the death toll now stands at seven.

  • Slide 24 of 51: A medical staff of general practitioners walk in front of their coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test center set up outside a doctor's office in a tent at Berlin's Reinickendorf district, Germany, March 23, 2020.

  • Slide 25 of 51: The relative of an inmate cries outside La Modelo jail in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, March 22, 2020. Violence broke out in the prison out of inmates' fears that authorities are not doing enough to prevent coronavirus inside overcrowded prisons.

  • Slide 26 of 51: People wearing protective face masks, sit on social distancing benches at a bus station after many workers crowded the terminal station to return to their cities after many activities have been closed due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Thailand March 22, 2020.

  • Slide 27 of 51: French soldiers of La Valbonne medical regiment set up a military field hospital at the Emile Muller Hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, on March 22, 2020, on the sixth day of a strict lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

  • Slide 28 of 51: French soldiers of La Valbonne medical regiment set up a military field hospital at the Emile Muller Hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, on March 22, 2020, on the sixth day of a strict lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

  • Slide 29 of 51: Residents clap and bang utensils from their balconies to cheer for emergency personnel and sanitation workers who are on the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus, in Mumbai, India, March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

  • Slide 30 of 51: Pastor Billy Jones leads a drive-in church service to churchgoers in their cars in the car park of Dunseverick Baptist Church following government advice to avoid all non-essential contact as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. Bushmills, Northern Ireland, March 22, 2020 REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

  • Slide 31 of 51: LISBON, PORTUGAL - MARCH 22: MSC Fantasia cruise ship, coming from Brazil, with 1,338 passengers, of which 27 are Portuguese citizens, is docked in the Cruise Terminal from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol on March 22, 2020 in Lisbon, Portugal. Portuguese passengers will disembark today and the others will get off the ship on Tuesday after being screened for COVID-19 Coronavirus. The government has confirmed 1,600 cases and 14 deaths so far in Portugal, and predicts the pandemic peak in mid-April. (Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

  • Slide 32 of 51: Rev. Micah Muhlen, OFM, prays prior to a modest and shortened service at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Basilica, attended by very few parishioners due to the coronavirus Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

  • Slide 33 of 51: A yard sign shows support for nurses and doctors Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Nolensville, Tenn. Several residents in the neighborhood put up signs thanking medical personnel for their work during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

  • Slide 34 of 51: People walk around Washington square park as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in New York, U.S., March 22, 2020.  REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

  • Slide 35 of 51: Revd Mark Dearnley poses for a picture after Church services were recorded for a live service streaming on YouTube at St Peter’s Church as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. St Albans, Britain March 22, 2020 REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

  • Slide 36 of 51: Hungarian musician Adam Moser plays for neighbours from his balcony, as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Budapest, Hungary, March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

  • Slide 37 of 51: A laboratory employee works on the production of hydroalcoholic solution according to WHO recommendations for hygienic hand disinfection during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Paris, France, March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

  • Slide 38 of 51: People form a line to enter a Trader Joe's supermarket during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

  • Slide 39 of 51: Health workers spray disinfectant on a motorist in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus outbreak in Surabaya, Indonesia, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Trisnadi)

  • Slide 40 of 51: A view of deserted the Bandra-Worli sea link over the Arabian Sea in Mumbai, India, Sunday, March 22, 2020. India is Sunday observing a 14-hour

  • Slide 41 of 51: Aircraft sit parked at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, as the sun rises Sunday, March 22, 2020. Due to the coronavirus the aviation industry expects heavy losses. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

  • Slide 42 of 51: SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 22: Red tape securing the beach at an empty Bondi beach after authorities banned people from gathering on it on March 22, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday introduced further measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19, implementing new rules limiting the number of people inside a venue to one every 4 square metres. Non-essential gatherings of 100 or more people indoors are banned, along with outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19. A travel ban on all visitors who are not Australian citizens or residents or their direct relations arriving into the country is now in place. There are now 1286 confirmed cases of COVID-19 In Australia and the death toll now stands at seven. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

  • Slide 43 of 51: A health worker wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, checks the body temperature of passengers leaving from the airport in Kathmandu, on March 22, 2020. (Photo by PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP) (Photo by PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Slide 44 of 51: Cuban doctors take part in a farewell ceremony before departing to Italy to assist, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Havana, Cuba, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

  • Slide 45 of 51: This long exposure photo shows an empty street near the Pantheon square, in Paris, Saturday, March 21, 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron said that for 15 days starting at noon on Tuesday, people will be allowed to leave the place they live only for necessary activities such as shopping for food, going to work or taking a walk. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • Slide 46 of 51: Brooklyn resident Arthur Adamczyk shares hand sanitizer with his roommate, DJ and event producer Nash Petrovic during a live streamed set from their roof during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

  • Slide 47 of 51: Catholic priest Reginaldo Manzotti prays before a mass with photos of the faithful over the church's banks at the Santuario de Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe church during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Curitiba, Brazil March 21, 2020.

  • Slide 48 of 51: Local community workers prepare to use a drone loaded with disinfectant to released on streets during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Talcahuano, Chile March 21, 2020.

  • Slide 49 of 51: Aerial view of empty roads in Bogota, on March 21, 2020. - Colombian authorities announced a mandatory isolation simulation for the extended weekend, from March 21 to 23, as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

  • Slide 50 of 51: DJ Francesco Cellini records people as he plays for them from the rooftop terrace of his apartment building, as Italians remain under lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Monteverde district, Rome, Italy March 21, 2020.

  • Slide 51 of 51: Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci speaks during a news briefing on the administration's response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2020.
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