Cross-posted from COVID-19 and The Law, where it originally appeared on December 1, 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an impossible set of choices for governments, forcing them to weigh the competing interests of protecting public health, ending social isolation, and safeguarding privacy and civil rights. Each of these ends offer distinct societal benefits, but without a vaccine or effective COVID treatment, governments can only accomplish two of the three at one time. South Korea provides an interesting example of the tradeoffs countries have made in pursuit of these competing objectives. The country is widely regarded as a model for successfully managing the pandemic, averaging approximately 77 new cases a day since April—roughly the equivalent of 480 cases a day in U.S. population terms. South Korea’s story is especially impressive given that, in March, the country was considered one of the biggest infection hot spots outside of China. Comparing these statistics with the actual infection rate in the U.S. illustrates the success of the South Korean approach: on November 23, 2020, the CDC reported 147,840 new cases, for a total of 12,175,921 known infections in the U.S. since the pandemic began.