A Timeline of South Korea’s Response to COVID-19

South Korea saw its first confirmed COVID-19 case on January 20. The rate of infection gradually moved to 30 by February 17.  Then on February 18, media reports surfaced that a 61-year-old Korean woman tested positive for the virus in Daegu, South Korea’s third-largest city. Dubbed “Patient 31,” this particular case not only represented a critical point that led to the rapid transmission of the virus through the rest of Korean society. It also came to serve as a warning to the rest of the world by underscoring the grave consequences of failing to practice social distancing and self-isolation.

South Korea saw a steep spike of case numbers in the following weeks and reached its peak daily case count on February 29 – forty days after its first confirmed case on January 20 – with 909 new cases and up nearly 500 from the previous day. It became the second most infected country after China by early March. South Korea undertook a massive public and private sector effort to fashion a national response to the pandemic. Korea’s drive-through testing gained media attention around the world and was hailed as an ingenious measure to protect healthcare workers from exposure while providing expeditious results to prospective patients.

Now, two months after the first confirmed case, South Korea is commended for its efforts to contain the outbreak. Though the response was not without its flaws, the Korea case is distinct in several respects.
  • Early: An early and almost immediate response after the first case on January 20.
  • Speed: A premium on moving as quickly as possible in setting up a testing regime.
  • Transparency: Real-time and frequent information dissemination to the public.
  • Public-Private sector: Enlisting companies with needed resources in a private-public sector response.
  • National organization: Organized as a national effort rather than at the city, provincial, or local levels.
Through timely development and approval of a functioning diagnostic test, frequent dissemination of information and public resources, heightened border control, and meticulous contact mapping through patient questionnaires and GPS-based mobile applications, South Korea’s efforts to “flatten the curve” are seemingly working. While the United States outranked China on March 26, 2020 as the country with the highest number of infected patients with an upwards of 84,000 confirmed cases, Korea now sits tenth on the roster of nations with the highest numbers of coronavirus cases.

To document this trajectory of South Korea’s national response efforts against the spread of COVID-19, the CSIS Korea Chair created a timeline of events outlining policies and other measures implemented to date.

The CSIS Korea Chair would like to thank medical professionals, healthcare personnel, volunteers, experts, journalists, delivery workers and all those at the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic who work tirelessly to provide essential services to the public during this time.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Dana Kim