The nation fast-tracked approval of domestic testing kits as soon as cases began hitting. It tapped into its relative wealth and hyperconnectivity, blasting text alerts to citizens if infections occurred in their area. When the supply of face masks ran short early on in the crisis, the government seized production.

At twice-a-day briefings, health officials express worry when they can only trace the origins of three-quarters of confirmed cases. Virus experts stand at the podium of government briefings and frequently warn of looming catastrophe. Nearly everyone in the country wears masks. Every confirmed patient, even those with no or mild symptoms, gets isolated at hospitals or converted dormitories run by the government. Treatment is free.

As a result, South Korea never had to mandate a lockdown, so restaurants and business were able to stay open, cushioning the blow to the economy…

Some parts of its playbook wouldn’t work in most Western societies—and received backlash in South Korea as well. Health officials have unfettered access to individuals’ private mobile data, and early on used government websites to share the whereabouts of confirmed patients, plucked from smartphone GPS history. The disclosures didn’t include individuals’ names, but they typically contained details such as gender, age and workplace that could identify a patient.