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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the example of South Korea may be the way forward for many other regions globally.

The country relied on its experience fighting a different coronavirus five years ago to combat COVID-19.


As restrictions are eased, Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, has pointed to South Korea as an example of how Germany will have to improve measures to “get ahead” of the pandemic with more testing and tracking of cases to slow the infection rate.

Experts say one reason South Korea has managed to avoid lockdowns or business bans was because of its aggressive testing and contact-tracing program that draws from its experience of fighting a different coronavirus: MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2015.

Following that outbreak, which killed 36 people and sickened around 200, South Korea rewrote its infectious disease law to allow health authorities quick access to a broad range of personal information to fight infectious diseases.

Jung Soon-kyun, who’s in charge of the Gangnam District Office in Seoul, said his office's response to the COVID-19 outbreak was helped by MERS prep.

"Going through the MERS outbreak, the district government learned to build up an infectious disease response manual and store the necessary equipment," Jung said in an interview with The Korea Times.

"We are trying to respect infectious disease response manuals which prioritize early detection and testing," Jung added.

The new virus comes from a large family of coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. But in late 2002, a coronavirus named SARS erupted in southern China, causing severe pneumonia that rapidly spread to other countries. It infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 -- and then it disappeared, thanks to public health measures.

In 2012, another coronavirus dubbed MERS began sickening people in Saudi Arabia. It’s still hanging around, causing small numbers of infections each year. The World Health Organization has counted nearly 2,500 cases of MERS in the Middle East and beyond and more than 850 deaths.

SARS and MERS came from animals.

Amid criticism from privacy advocates, authorities have fully exercised such powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, aggressively tracing virus carriers’ contacts with tools such as smartphone GPS tracking, credit card records and surveillance video. People’s movements before they were diagnosed are published on websites and relayed via smartphone alerts to inform others whether they have crossed paths with a carrier.

The government is also using smartphone tracking apps to monitor the tens of thousands of people placed under self-quarantine at home and plans to use electronic wristbands on people who defy quarantine orders.


South Korea on Wednesday reported 11 new cases of the coronavirus, the 21st day in a row that the daily jump in infections came in below 100.

The approach has meant South Korea has managed to slow the spread of the virus without imposing massive lockdowns or banning nonessential businesses, so there has never been any debate over “reopening” its economy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.