EFFECTIVE GOVERNANCE SAVES LIVES: South Korea and the U.S. by Robin Parsons

July 1, 2020

The first half of 2020 has been an interesting case study on the effectiveness of different methods chosen by governments to deal with crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. When comparing policies set by different countries in response to Covid-19, the outcomes based on their responses vary greatly. While some countries took swift, decisive action based on facts and data in an attempt to mitigate the damages caused by the virus, other countries took action slowly. Although we are still living in the midst of the crisis, new information about consequences of governments’ actions or inaction is steadily emerging and from that we can conclude which decisions were effective and which were not. Policy makers had to make difficult choices, but the effectiveness of those choices had a direct and significant effect on the outcome in their country.

Two nations whose responses can be compared to determine whether they handled the Covid-19 crisis effectively are South Korea and the United States. The countries responded to the pandemic differently from the very beginning, when the first cases of the virus were newly confirmed within their borders. South Korea responded using intense testing and contract tracing methods to quarantine people quickly as they came into contact with infected individuals. The South Korean government used data and facts, including studying the response to a previous respiratory virus epidemic in their country, to determine which actions would be the most effective and took those actions immediately. The United States government on the other hand was slow to acknowledge that the virus was a problem within its borders, was slow to test, and was slow to prohibit travel to mitigate the spread of the disease. The failure of the United States government to ignore the preliminary data from countries that were hit by the pandemic before them, and the failure to act quickly and decisively contributed to the fast spread of the virus across the states. It also resulted in the economy of the United States suffering immensely as the country shut down en masse, prompting a secondary financial crisis as unemployment numbers went up significantly when people lost their jobs and businesses had to close.

Another comparison between the South Korean and the United States governments’ response to Covid-19 is the information and messaging that went to their citizens. While South Korea’s government disseminated information in January encouraging citizens to take measures to slow the spread of the virus, the United States government downplayed the threat of Covid-19 and did not treat it as an emergency until mid-March. The United States response was ineffective because the virus was able to spread for weeks among a population that may not have known the gravity of the situation. Another factor that contributed to the virus’s spread was the mixed messaging that came from different state governments in the US. Some states took extreme lockdown measures earlier than others, leading citizens to believe those states were overreacting. A final factor that contributed to an ineffective response to Covid-19 by the United States government was politicizing the pandemic. A virus is not an inherently political issue and partisan politics should have no effect on decisions made by governing bodies in their response to disease outbreaks.

The steps that South Korea and the United States each took lead to quite different outcomes. Per Google statistics, South Korea has confirmed close to 12,000 cases in total, with less than 300 deaths. The United States has confirmed over 2 million cases with 114,000 deaths. The United States accounts for about 4.25% of the world’s population but accounts for over 28% of the world’s confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 28% of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. A disproportionate number of United States citizens have become sick or died as a result of Covid- 19 and that statistic is a direct outcome of ineffective governance during the Covid-19 crisis. The South Korean government’s response to the pandemic is a great example of how effective governance has kept their citizens relatively healthy and saved their lives. The United States’ response shows how ineffective governance during a crisis was a threat to the health and lives of their citizens.

Effective governance is crucial during a crisis and state governments would be wise to evaluate which responses to Covid-19 prove to slow down or stop the spread of the disease as numbers of cases begin to rise again in many places. If their policy makers analyze the data, make decisions based on facts and science, are transparent with their citizens, disseminate information quickly, and have consistent messaging then the crisis will be much less burdensome on their resources and they will have much lower sickness and death rates.


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