May 19, 2020

New GDI Analysis: Learning from Case Studies of Past Epidemics and the Republic of Korea’s Response to COVID-19

Jacob Bathanti , Consultant

As policymakers and development practitioners seek to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many are seeking to learn from potential good practices and past experiences. New GDI analysis examines some of these experiences through the lens of GDI case studies. What can we learn, for example, from case studies of earlier efforts to confront epidemics, and to rebuild afterward? And what can we learn from effective responses to COVID-19 now?

Learning from case studies of past epidemic response and recovery

A new blog post by Debra Ladner and Jacob Bathanti on the World Bank’s Investing in Health examines delivery case studies of response and recovery to past epidemics, including Building a more resilient health system after Ebola in Liberia, and How BRAC’s microfinance program recovered from the West Africa Ebola crisis.

A number of delivery challenges emerged across cases: basic infrastructure; organizational capacity; coordination among actors and stakeholders; and communication and engagement. These challenges are not unexpected, as they are common in all sorts of policies and interventions. But the cases we examined show in some operational detail how these challenges can hinder epidemic response. We also examine another GDI case study, The Republic of Korea’s First 70 Days of Responding to the COVID-19 Outbreak. In this case study, we can see  how the Republic of Korea was able to overcome, or to anticipate and avoid, some of these challenges in its response to COVID-19.

While these past case studies examine varied contexts, and of course diseases different from COVID-19, they may hold lessons for how we can think about responding to the current epidemic. Learning from experience and from innovations to address delivery challenges can carry into the post-epidemic period as well. Adaptive learning from the challenges that epidemics reveal is crucial to reconstructing and strengthening health systems and building wider resilience.

Confronting Coronavirus: Examining the Korean Response in a New Case Study

The Republic of Korea was one of the first countries in the world to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting its first positive case on January 20, 2020. At the peak of the outbreak, over 800 new cases were reported daily. Yet overall, Korea's response has been effective in slowing the spread of the disease. How did Korea achieve these results?

A new GDI case study by Debra Ladner, Katsumasa Hamaguchi, and Kyuri Kim tackles this very question, tracing the first 70 days of response implementation. It examines aspects of the response including efforts to trace the virus and prevent transmission, the development and deployment of tests, and the role played by preparations for a novel disease outbreak following the 2015 MERS outbreak in Korea.

And, while the lessons from the case are certainly context-specific, they are suggestive. As with other policy interventions, implementation matters. Korea’s existing implementation capacity was strong, enabling responses to be ramped up quickly. Yet other factors played key roles as well, including early, strong coordination to produce test kits, quick adaptation to shifting conditions on the ground, and rapid scale-up of promising innovations that yielded vaunted drive-through and walk-through testing centers. Memories of what was seen as a less-than-satisfactory response to Korea’s outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2015 also played a role, helping to lend the response to COVID-19 a sense of urgency and making communication with the public more transparent and proactive.

You can read more analysis at this post on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog, and read the case study here.

Looking forward

GDI will continue working to document experiences that are relevant to the COVID-19 crisis and to analyze how practitioners address delivery challenges as they seek to respond. We want to hear from you, so please check out these case studies and blog analyses, and let us know what you think. And if you have suggestions of other resources, or of other interesting response cases to explore, please drop us a line at