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How South Korea Built a Health System to Beat COVID-19

Although South Korea faced one of the world’s largest initial COVID-19 outbreaks outside China, it managed to contain the virus quickly, without imposing a nationwide lockdown. Decades of working toward universal health care paid off, and created a model that today's developing countries should emulate.

SEOUL – The importance of a reliable and widely accessible health-care system is never more apparent than during a pandemic. It is now painfully clear that countries cannot pursue economic development, and assume that the health system will develop in tandem. Instead, they must do what South Korea did: devise targeted strategies for effective health-care delivery that go hand in hand with broader social- and economic-development efforts.

Over the last decade, South Korea’s modern and robust health infrastructure has enabled it to cope with multiple major health crises. The COVID-19 crisis has been no different. Although South Korea faced one of the world’s largest initial outbreaks outside China, it managed to contain the virus quickly, without imposing a nationwide lockdown.

This success was a long time coming. South Korea’s rapid ascent from a low-income country to high-income status occurred alongside a drastic improvement in health outcomes. From 1960 to 1990, the infant mortality rate plummeted, from 80 deaths per 1,000 births to just 13, and average life expectancy at birth increased from 55 to 72 years.

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