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The Country That Beat The Virus (Channel 4) - Review

The Country That Beat The Virus

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

INSIGHTFUL or too soon? Channel 4’s Covid-19 documentary The Country That Beat The Virus will doubtless have its cynics, or those that believe the ends don’t justify the means. But as a way of highlighting how to take a pandemic seriously and get on top of it before catastrophe strikes, few can deny that South Korea excelled when it came to dealing with coronavirus.

Channel 4’s programme sought to compare two chronologies: South Korea and the United Kingdom. And the differences in both attitude and approach could not have been more different. Where one dithered, the other accelerated. And where one’s death rate soared, the others was kept reassuringly low.

The comparisons came thick and fast. Some were shameful. Others lamentable. There were even those that made you laugh with disbelief, all the while squirming somewhat uncomfortably in your seat as you realise that – in the week that the UK lockdown eased – the situation over here hovers precariously close to catastrophe.

South Korea’s model was simple. It was all about containment. Having got things horribly wrong during the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus), South Korea weren’t going to be caught out a second time.

Heat scanners have been installed at airports, super labs were set up to mass produce tests. An army of experts was ready to undertake the massive programme of testing, contact tracing and quarantine that followed once patient zero was identified on January 19, 2020, as they arrived at Seoul airport from Wuhan.

Admittedly, their successful contact tracing scheme relied heavily on state surveillance. By being able to access phone and credit card data and work backwards through any infected person’s life, they were able to suppress the spread. As an example, if someone infected was found to have eaten in a restaurant, then the receipts from that eaterie would be collected and every diner traced, tested and quarantined if they showed symptoms.

This was a model that was repeated whenever a new case was found. It was exhaustive and comprehensive.

By contrast, the UK timeline started 10 days later when the country realised it had let someone arrive direct from Wuhan and had failed to react. Hence, that person had the chance to walk around and establish the virus here.

Even then, a soundbyte from a Boris Johnson briefing, following a hospital visit, saw him admitting that the venue had been caring for coronavirus patients but that, crucially, he had still shaken hands with everyone there. Everyone knew what came next for our Prime Minister… and the show didn’t need to go there.

Back in Korea, the programme of containment had seemed to be a complete success until a secretive Christian sect known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus were found to be riddled with it. Hence, the city of Daegu became an epicentre, with 90% of those church members tested found to be positive.

Containment was suspended in Daegu. But residents, according to the programme, agreed to a voluntary lockdown to prevent the spread to other regions. Streets were shown to be empty.

And the contact tracing initiative continued apace throughout the rest of the country.

There have since been clusters of outbreaks: one based around a nightclub complex. But South Korea has never had to impose a lockdown. The economy, while affected, never took the massive hit the UK economy has. Tourist sites, shops and market places remained open.

A student said he was proud to be South Korean and we followed him into his apartment complex, where a lift had been kitted out with hand sanitizer. Crucially, as he observed, it hadn’t been stolen. Toilet roll never ran out.

Back in the UK, meanwhile, the situation became critical. As the virus took its grip, the UK’s policy of contact tracing and containment was halted. The programme pointed out that this wasn’t just counter to the successful South Korean model, but also to WHO (World Health Organisation) advice. Another soundbyte showed its head reiterating the need to “test, test, test”.

Hence, while the UK waited for testing kits that were 100% accurate, South Korea had testing kits for Covid-19 ready within 17 days, while admitting that there was still room for improvement in their accuracy. Rather than wait, they decided to begin testing and get on top of the virus, rather than the other way around.

So, in the final analysis, we had to decide: does South Korea’s policy constitute an infringement of civil rights? The programme admitted that some of the policies had proved embarrassing for some members of the public, with some affairs being uncovered.

Or does the death toll – South Korea’s currently numbers 259 – mean that some potential loss of privacy is worth it?

Did the UK react too slowly? The answer would seem to be a resounding ‘yes’, particularly given that it started out behind South Korea, so had more time to learn from other countries.

Life is almost normal in South Korea today… although, crucially, children have still not been sent back to school and are being taught online.

There will be those, of course, who dispute the accuracy of South Korea’s death toll and who may even doubt its transparency. Others will doubtless resist any move to compromise personal privacy.

But The Country That Beat The Virus – while perhaps inappropriately named given that no country can yet claim to have beaten it completely – certainly provided plenty of food for thought and plenty to concern, particularly given the easing of restrictions within a country that is still hovering perilously close to the ‘R’ number rising back to lockdown necessitating levels.

As South Korea doubtless looks on incredulously, are we stumbling towards a second wave and the complete disaster – both humanitarian and economical – that would bring?

No matter which side of the fence you sit on regarding the effectiveness of each country’s policies, The Country That Beat The Virus made for compelling, essential viewing, especially when equipping people with the means to debate the issue intelligently and effectively.

A great follow-up would be for Channel 4 to visit countries like New Zealand and Germany to see how their policies also enabled them to keep their death rates low and the virus contained. There are plenty more lessons to be learned, so long as we’re willing to listen.