Ciara Cotey is a Wesley Chapel native and University of South Florida graduate and the daughter of Neighborhood News managing editor John C. Cotey. She has lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea, since 2012, and has been living through the coronavirus outbreak since January.
I first heard about COVID-19 (which Koreans just call “corona”) around the end of January, when it was becoming more widespread in China. It was the weekend of the Lunar New Year, so lots of people were traveling abroad and gathering with their families.
I wasn’t too worried about it, and it didn’t stop any of my Korean friends or coworkers from taking a weekend trip to Hong Kong or Shanghai over the vacation. I took a short trip to Daegu, which would become the epicenter of the spread in Korea, and we casually chatted about how we hoped the coronavirus would stay in China.
I teach English to some of the board members of the Central Bank of Korea, and one day when I arrived, they had a thermal camera set up outside the elevators. They informed me that I couldn’t get into the building without wearing a mask. Luckily, I had a few at home to deal with the fine dust, but when I went to buy some later, I learned that masks were sold out everywhere — both in stores and online.
No one here was taking it too seriously until the last week of February, when infections quadrupled in a matter of days, due to one patient who refused a test and attended several “church” events while she was sick. This led to the entire city of Daegu shutting down, and the rapid spread of the virus north into the South Korean capital of Seoul caused people to take it more seriously.
Soon, masks and hand sanitizers were quickly bought up, and the government started the warning system.
The Korean government sends out detailed national warning messages every time a new patient is discovered, and you can see the list of all the places they had been while infected.
If anyone receiving the messages had been near any of those places, there is a hotline phone number and the health department will tell you to self-quarantine. And, if you show symptoms, they will come to your house to test you.
Korea did a really good job of containing the virus when it was only China that had most of the cases. Daegu got pretty much shut down. After that, cases started popping up all over Seoul, but most of the cases still remain related to this “church.”
All of the registered members were tested and, after that, coronavirus testing became mandatory for people who might have come in contact with infected people.
I’m not really scared of catching the virus, because I’m healthy and the healthcare system in Korea is excellent, so I know I would recover. The testing and treatment of covid-19 is paid for by the government, so I also didn’t have any fear of going broke if I caught it. However, I would be worried about spreading it to other people, like my adult students and their families, or my boyfriend and his parents.
Lots of working moms have had to take unpaid leave to take care of their children, as the school year continues to be postponed, currently until mid-April.
It’s surprising to me that Americans are treating this as a vacation when the health system and response to the virus has been so abysmal. On Facebook, I see my friends back home going to the beach, going to concerts and taking advantage of the cheap flights to take a trip, and I can’t imagine that happening here.
Social distancing is so important when there’s no way to even follow the trail of infections. Americans here are all glad we stayed because if we had gone home out of fear, we wouldn’t have had the same access to the health care and testing we have here.
As for the whole toilet paper thing, Koreans are literally laughing at Americans because they don’t understand why toilet paper is sold out.
The only shortages I have seen have been hand sanitizer, thermometers and face masks, which are rationed by National Health Insurance. You can get 2 masks on the designated days. On Thursdays, for example, if your birth year ends with 5 or 9, you can stand in line at the pharmacy to get your masks. Luckily, my boyfriend had the foresight to order 200 masks in January, just in case.
If anything, this pandemic has created a huge demand for ordering groceries online, and people aren’t stocking up or going to the grocery store because they can get whatever they want delivered whenever they want.
In general, people are still pretty worried, but some people are still living their lives the way they did before. My friends still go out and drink with their friends on the weekends, I still see restaurants packed with people.
But, everyone wears a mask in the subway and if you cough, all heads turn towards you. At the start of the issue, several foreigners here just up and left on the soonest flight to get away from the virus, I guess not knowing that it would eventually spread to their home countries as well. My close friends in Daegu are all confined to their homes because the situation in Daegu is much more stressful than it is here in Seoul.
“My whole family communicates by calling and video chatting now,” my friend Eunyoung Kim tells me. “None of the restaurants in the neighborhood are open except for delivery, and they just leave it outside your door after you pay electronically so there’s no physical contact. It’s hard not being able to share a meal with your family members for fear of getting sick.”
In a family-oriented culture like Korea, people are feeling very isolated compared to before.
At the moment, Korea is only showing about 75 or so new cases per day, with recovery rates surpassing the new cases, so it looks like it’s slowing down so far. People coming in from Europe are now forced into quarantine, so if this method works, Korea should have it fully contained within the next few months.
Stay safe, everyone. Hopefully, the U.S. response to the pandemic will continue to get better over time.