US and South Korea reported first COVID cases on the same day. They managed the pandemic; US didn’t. Here’s why

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South Korea halted virus transmission better than any other wealthy country during the pandemic’s early months. It was about twice as effective as the U.S. and U.K. at preventing infected individuals from spreading the disease to others.

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The key to South Korea’s success came from blending technology and testing like no other country, centralized control and communication—and a constant fear of failure.

The nation fast-tracked approval of domestic testing kits as soon as cases began hitting. It tapped into its relative wealth and hyperconnectivity, blasting text alerts to citizens if infections occurred in their area. When the supply of face masks ran short early on in the crisis, the government seized production.

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At twice-a-day briefings, health officials express worry when they can only trace the origins of three-quarters of confirmed cases. Virus experts stand at the podium of government briefings and frequently warn of looming catastrophe. Nearly everyone in the country wears masks. Every confirmed patient, even those with no or mild symptoms, gets isolated at hospitals or converted dormitories run by the government. Treatment is free.

As a result, South Korea never had to mandate a lockdown, so restaurants and business were able to stay open, cushioning the blow to the economy.

“No country has adapted to living with, and containing, the virus like South Korea,” said [the WHO’s] Dale Fisher.

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