|Bang Sang-hyok, vice president of the Korean Medical Association, speaks during a recent interview at the organization's office in Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min|
By Jung Min-ho
U.S. President Donald Trump is calling for a speedy reopening of businesses closed by COVID-19 shutdowns while Democratic governors are seeking to maintain their restrictions.
But can America's economy reopen safely? According to Bang Sang-hyok, vice president of the Korean Medical Association (KMA), it can ― only if almost everyone wears a face mask in public.
After a surge in the number of patients three months ago, Korea has brought the coronavirus under control without imposing nationwide lockdowns. If there was one critical thing Korea did differently from the United States and other hard-hit countries, Bang said it was encouraging everyone, including healthy-looking people, to cover their faces during the early phases of the pandemic ― long before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did.
"Lockdown cannot last forever," Bang said. "If mask-wearing cannot be done voluntarily, the government should consider making it mandatory."
The following are the questions and answers from a recent interview with him.
Question: Korea is one of the few countries to have succeeded in flattening the coronavirus curve. Many businesses have remained open, while churches and schools are now reopening. What did the country do differently to achieve this?
Answer: Three factors played a key role in Korea's success. First, the country has experienced other coronaviruses, such as the 2002-2004 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and, especially, the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) over the past 20 years. Thus, when policymakers, doctors and the public heard the news of the new coronavirus, they all understood how dire the situation was. Meanwhile, those in the United States and countries in Europe did not seem alert until it started hitting them hard.
From experience, Koreans also knew wearing a mask would be effective in slowing the spread of the virus. So the government, which advised the public to wear masks during the MERS outbreak here, responded quickly according to previous guidelines.
Furthermore, fine dust from China over the past several years has created demand for masks and a culture of wearing them on the streets. With many factories already in place, Korea could produce enough masks for everyone in a short time.
Q: Despite the prompt efforts to contain the virus, there was a surge of cases in Daegu. How did Korea manage to bring the situation under control?
A: After the cluster of infections in Daegu, the government did not take excessive measures, yet everyone there acted as if it had done so ― wearing masks, avoiding physical contact with other people and voluntarily isolating themselves if they felt it necessary. To this day, members of the public have been very cooperative in terms of following public health measures, which played a large role in containing the virus in the area.
Before the situation became worse, many medical workers from other parts of the country volunteered to go there to help. Their bravery and sacrifice should not be forgotten.
Q: Do you believe Korea's strategy would be applicable to other countries such as the United States?
A: Yes, but the success of the strategy depends on how cooperative their citizens would be. If they wear masks, wash their hands frequently and follow health measures strictly, I think it is possible. But of course, all states are different; there may be cultural differences, which may play a part. The number of hospitals, medical workers and equipment, these are among the factors to be considered before making a decision for each state or country.
Q: If they have to reopen, do you think universal masking should be mandatory?
A: If it is hard to expect people in the country to wear masks and the pace of infections is too much for medical resources available, yes, I think the government should consider making it mandatory.
Q: The KMA has worked with policymakers to fight this pandemic. What advice did the KMA give to them?
A: The most critical one was to tell everyone, including healthy-looking people, to wear masks in the early stages of the pandemic, which has greatly helped slow the spread of the virus, as everyone, including patients without symptoms, would cover their faces.
We also advised policymakers to set up facilities for patients with light symptoms. After the MERS experience, we initially advised them to treat all patients in hospitals. But after a while, it became clear that COVID-19 is different from MERS: it is far more infectious but less fatal. The decision has allowed hospitals to secure enough beds for more serious cases.
Q: Korea's response to the virus has been praised by other countries. Was there anything the government could have done better?
A: In early February, we urged the government to deny entry to everyone coming from China. As of today (May 22), 264 people have died of the virus. If the government closed the border with China then, I think the death toll would have remained under 100.
I believe the government decided not to take the advice for political and economic reasons, which is unfortunate because human lives can be lost as a result of such decisions. When it comes to dealing with infectious diseases, it is important to take strong measures in the early stages. Now many people are concerned about the economic fallout from the virus. I believe the economic damage would also have been less serious if the government shut the border.
Q: Has the KMA received any request for help from overseas?
A: The German government directly asked us to provide Korea's mask guidelines. The Uzbek government asked us to send an adviser, which we did. We are willing to provide help if any government or organization asks for it.
Q: What do you think of herd immunity as a solution for COVID-19?
A: Herd immunity occurs when 60 percent of a population is immune to the infection. But, as we all know now, the virus mainly kills the elderly. I don't know if it would be right to use the strategy when countries have other available methods such as masks to protect their people. I think it is too costly.
Q: Should we worry about the cluster of infections linked to Itaewon clubs and bars?
A: Many doctors, including myself, expected such a cluster of infections from clubs and bars to happen someday, because they are usually crowded and people would not wear masks there. It is a relief that they have now closed. Given the pace of infections, however, I think it would be manageable.
Q: When will the pandemic end in Korea?
A: Korea may report no new cases of COVID-19 within the country soon. But as long as the virus is raging elsewhere, it is not the end; there may be a second or a third wave later.
The pandemic won't end until we have vaccines and treatments. Until then, wearing a mask and washing hands are the best weapons we have.