I came back to Thailand last week and was greeted with the usual long queues at immigration. Only this time, the holdup was not caused by immigration officials but health officials checking boarding passes for points of embarkation. If you were traveling from China, South Korea or the other at-risk countries, you were asked to fill out a quarantine form and get your temperature checked at health control.
The whole process took 30-45 minutes. Your temperature was taken, your address was given, and your forms were stamped. There was no information given about how to self-quarantine or if it was even mandatory.
Looking at the other tourists in line, I am sure self-quarantine was not high on their priority as they were spending their hard-earned money to travel to the kingdom. Yet, the Germanness in me has kept me indoors and observing the 14-day rule.
To my surprise, the day after I arrived, I received a call from an official asking me to confirm my seat number and if I had any symptoms.
To be fair, I was glad the health officials were checking in on me. I had spent the previous weeks covering the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.
Covering the Covid-19 virus for the past weeks I have learned quite a bit about handling it. Not only in a personal capacity but also seeing the best containment solutions on the ground in South Korea.
I have covered stories in many hostile environments from ISIS, to tsunamis, to Ebola. All of them have one thing in common: The less panic, the better.
A calm environment is the best to solve problems and that could be seen in South Korea.
When I arrived, the country was the site of the largest number of new outbreaks and had been so for days. Some days, nearly thousands of new cases were being reported. For over a week it seemed unstoppable and threatened to spiral completely out of control.
But it didn’t.
South Korea’s solutions have worked very effectively and should be a case study for the rest of the world. Cases have gone down from four digits to two digits and I would not be surprised if there will be no new cases in the upcoming weeks.
What worked in South Korea?
Information. Information. Information.
South Korean health officials have been extremely quick and open about newly infected cases. They publish quickly and update the news every few hours. Not only are new cases publicized, the officials tell the public WHEN the patient got infected, WHERE the patient got infected and WHO might be at risk because of the infection.
All this information has been gathered and put together. They have been put up online without naming the patient, usually with a number system, e.g. Patient 21.
This information has then been linked to a geolocation system in cooperation with national carriers.
Picture yourself in the city of Daegu, in the country’s south. Daegu is the epicenter of the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Korea. You are walking around the city and suddenly your phone buzzes. With a loud alarm, you get a text message that was sent by the telephone company as you have entered a certain geolocation. The message informs you that a patient, e.g. Patient 21, has contracted the Covid-19 virus and was in the same area you are now.
With a quick touch of your phone, you can pull up all the details. You will see that Patient 21 entered the Starbucks in front of you just after the patient went to a restaurant across the street. You can now check the times and locations of the patient and cross-reference it with your own travels in the past days. It is very easy to see how this can be crucial information. Not only for individuals passing by but also for businesses/restaurants to sanitize the hotspot.
It is a ground-breaking innovation that should be implemented in every country with an outbreak.
South Korea also offers a drive-thru testing facility. You don’t even need to step out of your car. After a short registration, you will be consulted by a doctor. If you have any symptoms the test is free, if you don’t have symptoms but you would like to be tested anyway the test is just under US$200.
When I filmed the facility, they were doing hundreds of tests per day in just this one facility. Overall, South Korea has been the leading nation in carrying out tests with more than 10,000 tests per day. For the South Korean government doing as many tests as possible is crucial to understanding where the virus is spreading.
Once hotspots are known (e.g. Daegu in south Korea) you can close down schools, big gatherings, and events and make sure that epicentres of the outbreak will be sanitized on a big scale.
The South Korean government has initiated an emergency stimulus package that is funding a lot of these measures. US$10 billion has been allocated mainly to medical institutions and to fund quarantine efforts, but a big chunk will also go to businesses struggling to pay wages to their workers as well as childcare subsidies.
Comparisons to Germany and Thailand
All of this is very different in other countries. As a German citizen, I hear that my hometown has panic buyers hoarding toilet paper, racism is on the rise, and fake news spread fear faster than the actual disease. Many other countries like the US or Thailand have allegedly been refusing to publish the real numbers of infected cases. They limit testing facilities and make Covid-19 tests extremely pricey.
If you have been in touch with coronavirus patients it is a sensible thing to get yourself tested.
But after coming back to Thailand I had to visit three big hospitals before finally getting tested.
Samitivej tried to charge me US$750 for a test even though I passed the health ministry guidelines of being potentially infected.
Bumrungrad didn’t even allow me to take a test as I did not have any symptoms.
I finally managed to get tested at Bangkok Christian Hospital for US$150.
I do hope that policy in Thailand changes because the country’s healthcare infrastructure has been noted as being one of the most prepared in the region. Government policy must catch up and openness and transparency is the key to solving this crisis.