Article ID: CBB527253772

COVID-19 Exceptionalism: Explaining South Korean Responses (2022)


COVID-19 has presented challenges across the globe that led to a number of shared lessons to be learnt. Yet, we are inundated with comparative accounts that characterize national pandemic responses as inherent and unique to certain nation states, which, we argue, led to COVID-exceptionalism. This article challenges “cultural” explanations of South Korea’s “successful” responses to COVID-19 crisis. The popular narrative has been that Korea’s cluster-based mitigation strategy was sustained by rigorous contact tracing and mass testing systems, and this was made possible by three distinctive elements of pandemic preparedness: 1) Korean “culture” of normalizing face-covering, 2) Korean citizens’ consensus of prioritizing public health to privacy, and 3) Korea’s IT infrastructure enabling efficient digital contact tracing. By debunking the three myths, we demonstrate why neither the Asian “authoritarian advantages” thesis nor the counter-argument of “Asian civility” adequately captures the reality of Korea’s reaction to the COVID pandemic. The ways in which risks are conceptualized as manageable objects produce particular modes of allocating responsibilities for risk mitigation, when dealing with a relatively unknown virus. COVID-exceptionalism may cause not only the issue of reinforcing “(East) Asian”/“Western” stereotypes, but also other problems such as implicitly granting political impunity to those responsible for coordinating COVID-19 responses.

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Authors & Contributors
Abeysinghe, Sudeepa
Gobo, Giampietro
Sena, Barbara
Heewon Kim
Choi, Hyungsub
Chan-Yuan Wong
Social Studies of Science
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal
Technology and Culture
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Mefisto: Rivista di medicina, filosofia, storia
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Technoscience; science and technology studies
Medicine and society
Public health
Time Periods
21st century
20th century
20th century, late
Great Britain
South Korea
East Asia
World Health Organization (WHO)

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