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COVID19 response: Lessons from Sweden, Singapore & South Korea

by Tom Warneke
First published 25th April 2020
Global | Understanding Your World | Fostering Growth & Opportunity

Nation states around the world are not only contending with their immediate response to COVID-19 but also how they’re likely to emerge from the pandemic. To look forward at what reopening might look like, we can start to look at the countries where restrictions are minor to begin with.


Looking to the likes of Sweden, their lockdown and closure was relatively minimal to begin with. Cafes, Bars and Restaurants all remain open. Some restrictions around public events or universities do exist but largely the government has relied on the population to do the right thing and socially distance of their own accord.

Of course, this may not necessarily have been the best advice. Compared with their neighbours, cases have increased rapidly and testing is lower.

Sweden serves as an interesting test case comparatively to many of their European contemporaries as they all rush to introduce major restrictions, permits and lockdowns. While it’s still early days to be able to assess the success of Sweden’s approach, the next few weeks will tell.

South Korea

South Korea likewise avoided widespread lockdowns whilst still controlling the pandemic.

They instituted measures like moving education online and social distancing but most businesses have stayed open. Having one of the earliest responses to COVID-19, they were also highly aggressive in their bid to contain the virus.

It helps that they’re not new at this. 2015 saw the largest outbreak of MERS outside Saudi Arabia. Many key lessons were learnt from this experience such as the importance of early and comprehensive testing.

They also introduced extensive contact tracing to track down individuals who may have come into contact with someone who tested positive. Task forces were setup involving medical professionals, law enforcement and legal teams to pool together their skills and resources to aid the tracing effort. Electronic data was also made available including CCTV footage, electronic banking data as well as access to people’s cell phones. With this comprehensive approach, it allowed authorities to track down people before they became symptomatic and thus limit the spread faster.


Singapore’s SARS experience in 2003 also helped prepare it’s response to COVID-19. Similar to South Korea, aggressive and early testing is key as well as expansive contact tracing.

One striking difference which separates Singapore to South Korea (and the reason their numbers are continuing to escalate) is due to their large migrant worker population. These workers, often living in very close quarter dormitories means containment has been challenging.


One of the major differences seen between Europe, North America and the rest of Asia versus the likes of South Korea is experience. Simply put, South Korea had a trial run with MERS and likewise Singapore with SARS. These vital lessons have proved pivotal in their successful responses.

Beyond this, we also know that Western Europe and North America would be unlikely to push through such extensive controls due to concerns over privacy.

Poorer countries such as those in Africa or South America are unlikely to have the financial or technological capabilities to meet the tracking and tracing requirements

Lastly, culturally, there’s a certain element of public compliance in South Korea or Singapore that may not be seen in more western nations. This is clearly proven through the recent protest movements in the United States where concerned citizens are protesting the virus and associated lockdown measures.

Trying to carbon copy measures from the likes of Singapore or South Korea may be impractical in many other countries of the world but as COVID-19 carries on unabated and solutions in short supply, many countries have no choice but to cast the net wide and experiment with everything at their disposal to see what helps bring the ‘new normal’ society sooner rather than later.

Many of our clients globally are already engaging with us as they determine how to monitor the situation whilst continuing their operations and keep their teams and operations safe.

We’ve setup a hub on our website to help our clients track the situation as well as access the latest in analysis as well as advice from the World Health Organisation — find us at

We’re helping our clients through monitoring and analysis of the situation via inCountry as well as our local, regional & global analysts and experts as well as our crisis response and emergency management provisions — ensuring our clients are assisted in their time of need.

If you have concerns about your current operations and the risks to your team or your business or if you feel you need a more developed understanding in the current situation and what might help you be better prepared, our team is able to assist. We have an expansive team in most regions with access to the latest information and analysis as well as scenario planning and support. To find out how we can support you, our team can be reached at



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Tom Warneke

Tom Warneke

Risk. Security. Travel. Geopolitics. Foreign Affairs. International Aid. The Arts. What makes the world tick and what’s the story behind what’s going on.