South Korea and the coronavirus: from the biggest outbreak outside of China to containment

With Nah-Mee Shin |

How has the COVID-19 situation evolved in South Korea?
The first COVID-19 case was reported here on 20 January. To our surprise, this patient was not Korean, but a Chinese woman visiting from Wuhan, China. She was hospitalized for two weeks then recovered to return to her country. Unfortunately, no one knew the severity of this virus at the time and what would follow in the months ahead in our nation. 

Korean healthcare professionals initially expressed their concerns for our government's indecisive actions against the COVID-19 outbreak, and for not heeding the medical experts’ advice more seriously. However, after three tumultuous months since the first case was reported, we now have an average of less than 10 new cases per day across the nation. 

South Korea has been applauded by the global community for its ability to curb the spread of COVID-19. What do you attribute that to?
Thanks to the die-hard efforts of countless nurses and doctors, we have been able to keep the numbers down and stabilize. As a nation, we complied with government guidelines of social distancing and wearing masks. Actually, wearing a mask is a common practice in Korea for self-protection. Since yellow air dust and pollution have become a health and safety hazard, people have taken the initiative to protect themselves by wearing a mask for safer breathing. 

Perhaps our previous history and experience with outbreaks such as SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2015 also helped to better equip our nation over time. Clearly, our understanding of personal safety and responsibility learned from the past outbreaks in the East helped us to unite and work together.

What do you think a key takeaway from this outbreak will be?
Despite having the very best and dependable nurses and doctors up front, I think we should have worked more closely with the local government and policymakers to ensure the safety of our healthcare staff at the frontline. In order to ensure everyone has the resources and supplies needed to do his or her job safely, we need to learn to speak up and voice our needs.

How are nurses holding up?
Our nurses are also someone’s beloved daughter, a loving wife, or a precious mom missed at home. Clearly, they have battles at both ends. Serving at the frontline of the pandemic, nurses face their own personal challenges as they often cannot be with their loved ones. Moreover, they face tremendous stress in knowing that they risk putting their own loved ones in danger.

Some nurses will benefit from counseling services for emotional and physical support from exhaustion and for work trauma after this. As nurse educators, I think we will need to be more passionate about sharing our fellow nurses’ bravery and disseminating inspiring stories from the frontlines with our students.

Tell us about the good you’ve seen shining through the darkness.
South Korea is a relatively small country where it is easy for its citizens to connect, communicate, and mobilize. When a call for help went out, many volunteer nurses immediately responded to Daegu, the city with the most concentrated COVID-19 outbreak. Among them were 75 newly graduated nurses. Thankfully, they completed their call safely and none became ill.  

Modesty is regarded as a virtue, especially for women in Korean culture. During this outbreak, nursing as a health profession has gained more recognition and trust from the public, which they deserve. However, there is an impression that voices from nurses at the frontlines have not really been heard or rewarded. Although nurses’ presence on mass media is somewhat more visible than before, it is still limited to demonstrating nursing impact on patients’ outcomes in hospitals or in promoting reduction of contagions in community health settings. Rather than showing our professionalism for what we really do, the images of sacrifice and nurturing are mostly presented on the news and media.  


Nah-Mee Shin PhD, APRN-ACNP, is a professor at College of Nursing, Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. She is a member of Sigma’s Lambda Alpha at-Large Chapter in South Korea.

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