In early February 2020, no other country besides China had as many coronavirus responses as South Korea. Since then, the pandemic has been spreading across the globe. However, unlike the US and many European countries, and now India, South Korea has managed to control the spread of the virus considerably. Not only has it reduced the Covid-19 fatalities by a third of the global average, South Korea is one of the few countries to have flattened the curve and so far the re-emergence of the virus has been minimal.

A big part of South Korea’s preparedness came on the back of its highly advanced internet and digital infrastructure. Earlier, in 2019, South Korea became one of the first countries in the world to switch on 5G mobile services. It has consistently been ranked as one of the most connected countries in the world, with over 96 per cent of the population having access to fast speed internet.

So, when the pandemic hit the country, sectors such as education, business and healthcare shifted to online mode with relative ease. In fact, effective application of technologies for information dissemination and contact tracing, besides agile testing, tracing, and treatment systems, has helped South Korea to counter flare-ups.

A look at how ICT helped South Korea to control the pandemic, and the lessons to be learnt by other countries…

Real-time monitoring

The Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015 made the South Korean government recognise the need for and the importance of real-time tracing. Thus, when Covid-19 struck, the authorities were quick to amend the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act to include provisions on surveillance amid the virus outbreak. Further, in a bid to fight the virus, the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) employed the Global Epidemic Prevention Platform (GEPP) system. Developed by Korean Telecom (KT), this digital platform integrates global infectious disease data culled from the national health authority and mobile data provided by KT. Under the oversight of the Korean National Police Agency, the KCDC applied the aggregated data from the GEPP system for real-time monitoring of potential and confirmed coronavirus cases.

Smart contact tracing

Smart contact tracing reduces the reaction time to identify a potential threat, isolate transmitters and notify users. South Korea has developed a contact tracing app, which is based on data such as geospatial, time series, image and video, and online transactions. It provides information about confirmed patients, places under quarantine, and potential transmitters.

The Korean government has instituted smart cities and connected systems in their Covid-19 mitigation strategy to collect, process and analyse large volumes of data within 10 minutes to figure out the temporal and spatial movement and contact of a patient. An epidemiological investigation support system has been developed to efficiently trace the movement of Covid-19 patients using the information on the government’s smart city data hub platform. With this, the country has been successful in detecting incidents of cluster infection and the source of transmission.

For contact tracing, the Korean authorities are relying on mobile GPS data, credit card transaction records and CCTV footage. The use of personal data is legal in South Korea and has proved effective in containing the virus. Owing to its strong connectivity, even without GPS or other locational services enabled, cell phone providers have been able to track phones with an accuracy of a kilometre or less. Besides, location tracking bracelets have been made mandatory for people breaking the quarantine laws.

AI- and big data-enabled rapid testing

The role of big data is crucial to South Korea’s public health toolkits. By implementing AI-driven solutions, the country has achieved favourable outcomes to flatten the curve. The government’s massive expenditure on R&D and the development of medicine and testing kits has supported companies to rapidly produce and launch the kits in the market.

AI helped in reducing the time needed for designing and building testing kits from two to three months to a few weeks. For instance, Seegene managed to develop diagnostic kits in less than three weeks using automation and AI. The kits have been approved by Canada, America and Europe, and have been deployed in over 100 countries. As of now, six companies have received approval for developing testing kits.

Further, there are companies that have trained their AI algorithms with large-scale chest X-ray photographic data to develop small devices that can detect abnormal lung conditions in Covid-19 patients in three seconds. These devices can be connected to portable X-ray equipment in Covid-19 screening centres or ambulances. AI is used for classifying patients into four categories: Mild, moderate, severe and very severe. The country has also installed AI-equipped screening stations, for instance, walkthrough testing stations that allow quick collection of samples as people walk through the station with minimal contact.

WISEnut, another local Korean company, has launched the AI-built Corona 119 ChatBot to inform the public about precautionary measures. Naver has also developed Clover Carecall, an AI-based voice robot system, to keep a check on the health conditions of people under self-quarantine and provide relevant information to public health centres.

Telemedicine

Besides AI-based solutions, telemedicine is supporting social distancing and enabling patients to stay connected with healthcare personnel. Authorities are using remote medicine on potential/confirmed patients for monitoring the symptoms of the virus. The solution is enabling healthcare professionals to check the symptoms of confirmed patients in real time. The whole examination is carried out via video call with the use of smartphones. All the symptoms are mentioned in the government database and patients are advised on the next steps.

5G-enabled robots to the rescue

Several companies in South Korea are using robotics for tasks such as manufacturing and cleaning. In May 2020, SK Telecom, together with Omron Electronics Korea, developed a 5G-powered autonomous robot to enable a systematic and efficient response. The robotic system transmits data to its server in real time, powered by the telecom company’s 5G technology. It sets off an alarm if anyone’s temperature is over 37.5 °C. Through AI, the robot detects gatherings and advises people to disperse, and even reminds them to put on a mask.

Leveraging public-private partnership

South Korea made the application programming interface (API) data available to encourage greater collaboration with the private sector and its indigenous start-up ecosystem. According to the Ministry of Science and ICT, South Korea, making the data publicly accessible has helped encourage the creation of various apps to address the issue of shortage of masks. South Korea’s largest digital and messaging platforms, Naver and Kakao also shared API and cloud data to improve the inventory of mask supplies through their map-related apps.

Going forward

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global tragedy; however, the use of ICT to contain it is proving beneficial. At the outset of the outbreak, while most countries kept data regarding the spread of the virus to themselves, South Korea promptly disclosed all information to the public. It managed to use ICT constructively and to its advantage in managing the pandemic.

By Shikha Swaroop