Living in Korea During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Advice for those in the United States

Try to think of the most exciting combination of two words that you can. It’s Friday is solid. Free pizza is always good. Free beer is probably even better. Taking into account happy birthday, coffee’s ready, and dance party, there are some really mood-boosting word combinations out there. I’m here to wager that none of these have ever sparked a flame of excitement as well as the following two words: SNOW DAY.

Maybe reading that made you feel something stir inside. If you are a parent, perhaps you wouldn’t be so quick to describe that stirring feeling as excitement. If that’s the case, just think back a few years to when those two words turned a day full of classes, homework, and school lunches, into a day full of sledding, cartoons, and chicken nuggets. I think you would be hard-pressed to come up with another example of two words that conjure that much joy.

The simple magic of a snow day was always that you did nothing to deserve it — other than the obvious sacrifice of living somewhere cold enough to produce snow-day conditions. Besides Christmas Eve, no evening was full of more anticipation than going to sleep (with a spoon under your pillow, obviously) and hoping to see that magic white stuff on the ground in the morning. Waking up to see that your dream had come true was a type of excitement integrally tied to the second most exciting pair of words in the world: NO SCHOOL.

I heard those two words for the first time in a while recently in a statement issued by the Korean government. Unfortunately, they were associated with four other words that altered the usual sense of excitement: “No school due to Coronavirus outbreak.”

Since that announcement five weeks ago, I have watched as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Korea has grown from less than 100 to over 9,000. My day to day life as an English teacher in Busan (부산) has changed a lot as I went from planning lessons and spring weekend trips all over Korea to planning weekend reading lists knowing I would be spending a lot of time indoors. After five weeks of a lifestyle controlled almost entirely by the risk of the coronavirus, I’m now reading and watching news reports of concern growing rapidly in America. Depending on the effectiveness of the U.S. response to the spread of the virus, it’s not inconceivable that the lifestyle I have been living in Korea will mirror that of people in the United States for the foreseeable future. It is with that in mind that I write this article.

Here are some facts about the virus in Korea, a glimpse into my experience living in a heavily-affected country, and a little unsolicited advice for those living in the United States.

Facts

As of June 29th, 2020:

There have been 12,757 confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea and 282 deaths (2.2% mortality rate in Korea ).

South Korea is almost exactly the size of Indiana, yet it has 7.7x more people than the Hoosier state. At the time of writing, Indiana has 44,930 confirmed coronavirus cases (that’s 6,674 cases per 1 million residents) compared to South Korea’s 12,757 cases (249 cases per 1 million residents). For comparison, that means Indiana has had 26 times more cases per 1 million people than South Korea. If Indiana had the same population as Korea, it would have around 345,000 cases and 20,166 deaths.

Around two-thirds of the South Korea’s cases are contained within one city in Korea, where the worst of the outbreak started in the first place.

South Korea has utilized “drive-through” testing stations where people can be tested without leaving their cars.

Korea has a universal health care system for its citizens and foreign residents. Under this system, the Korean government covers the cost of all testing and treatment for the coronavirus.

The Korean government has created a computer system to prevent individuals from hoarding face masks, and is limiting the sale of masks to two masks per person per week.

All Korean public schools closed on February 24th and students began taking online classes. Students did not return to public schools in Korea until late May or early June.

Experience

Ever since the coronavirus outbreak has really taken off in Korea, self-isolation has been the name of the game. Having talked with many friends in America about self-isolation recently, I have realized that many Americans are having a difficult time adjusting to life in a country heavily affected by Covid-19. In an effort to paint a mental picture for any curious readers, this is a glimpse into my self-isolation experience during the coronavirus:

On the first day of self-isolation you wake up and someone shouts “SNOW DAY” so you get kind of excited at first because you get to work from home that day. The weird thing is the snow is invisible and there is relatively little of it, but you are being told that you really don’t want to accidentally touch this stuff. So you quickly and carefully go buy enough food to last a week or so, and you download a few movies and a couple of books, and you tell yourself that you’re going to be able to do so much yoga now, and you don’t set an alarm in the morning even though it’s Tuesday.

After a few “snow days” you start to realize you aren’t sure if you should be scared because when you read the news it sounds like everyone is terrified of the snow, but if you look outside a ton of people are walking around as if it isn’t snowing. Also, you’re going a little bit stir-crazy because you haven’t left your 200 square foot apartment for more than 10 minutes in 72 hours so you kind of want to go outside because it doesn’t look like it’s snowing too hard. So on the weekend you put on your mask and go for a walk away from as many people as you can in case they have touched some snow by accident but don’t know it yet.

Eventually, you have to go back to work, except none of your students are coming to school for 3 more weeks. So it’s like you get to leave your apartment in order to self-isolate in your office. While you’re at work you pretty much do the same things you did at home, except maybe try to be a little more productive because, well, it’s work. So you update your LinkedIn, study Korean, and one day, out of sheer restlessness, do 500 push-ups while at work. Inevitably, someone at your school padlocks you inside of your office from the outside because they don’t even know you’re there, so you have to climb through a window to unlock your own door. Then you go back home and do it all again tomorrow.

That’s pretty much what self-isolation has been like.

Advice

For weeks, South Korea was the country with the second-highest number of confirmed cases outside of China. During that time, the most striking thing I have noticed was that people weren’t panicking. It’s not that people here weren’t worried. They were worried. They are still worried. But they aren’t panicking, and that’s a big difference. Don’t panic. That’s my best advice.

Instead, be smart. If you are worried that you are at risk for the virus, wash your hands. And when you leave your house or apartment, don’t touch your face with unwashed hands. If you can do that, you are protecting yourself and those you come in contact with.

Don’t hoard supplies, especially masks. I wear a mask every day when I leave my apartment as a reminder not to touch my face, and it works well for that. But I certainly don’t need a box of 50 masks to stay safe. It is important that when someone gets sick, they have access to a mask. That will do more to protect you than owning 50 masks yourself.

Self-isolation is crucial. And it will change the way you live your life. If you find yourself with more free time on your hands than you know what to do with, whether that is because you are working from home, or not able to work, do your best to be proactive about this time. It is easy to succumb to a lifestyle of bad habits, or at least habits that don’t leave you feeling fulfilled by the end of the day. If your normal routine of work, hobbies, or social activities has been disrupted, it’s important to establish a new normal. Find some kind of routine that feels productive. For me, that has been a daily combination of reading and yoga — two things that I was terrible at making time for before the coronavirus forced me into self-isolation.

This outbreak is not an opportunity to stigmatize people or condone xenophobic rhetoric. It was extremely disheartening to hear an American economist on the news say recently that China is not part of the “civilized world”. I’m not a public health official, but I’m confident that racism isn’t going to get us any closer to a global solution to this problem.

If you are looking for more information about the coronavirus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

That’s about it.

Despite the situation, I have no plans to leave Korea because of the virus. My day to day life isn’t exactly thrilling, but right now I’ll take repetitive and healthy over exciting and sick. I’ll make it through this just like you will. Be smart and stay safe out there.

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