Songdo is a neighborhood in the city of Incheon built on manmade land. Our neighborhood runs along the seaside, with downtown Incheon and Seoul to our east and the Yellow Sea and China directly to our west. Songdo’s aesthetic is the complete opposite from the rest of Korea. There is abundant and open space, at least four lanes for traffic, and clusters of apartment housing are surrounded by large artificial parks. Much of the land is still underdeveloped, as blocks of tall reeds grow next to new shiny buildings next to construction sites. Restaurants and shops are clustered here and spread out. Many residents rely on driving.
I moved to Songdo from Korea’s central city of Daejeon two years ago. I came here for a job teaching at the first American university in Korea. Upon moving to Songdo, I immediately missed Daejeon’s convoluted alleyways, its lively streets, the mom-and-pop stores on every corner, old brick houses scrunched up next to each other with their traditional ornate gates, decorated roof tiles, and kimchi pots. When I moved to a modern high-rise at the edge of Songdo, I felt I lost something special. But as the virus started to spread throughout Korea, I couldn’t help thinking that the large open roads and wetland that surrounded our area was something to be grateful for.
One of the first items to sell out in Korea were masks. When masks began selling out, that’s when residents knew the virus was the beginning of something larger.
Korea is a mask-wearing country—there are masks in convenience stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies. In Korea, it is very common for people to wear a mask regardless of time of day. It could be used for a puffy face after a night out drinking, to aid against Korea’s air pollution and fine dust, to protect a surgical procedure, a developing cough, or just an easy way to hide from looking particularly haggard that day. I joke that it takes me at least two weeks to know what my students actually look like in my morning classes.
A week or so after the news of COVID-19 was beginning to spread in China, my in-laws and I were on our way to Korea’s Jeju-do, an island southwest of the Korean peninsula. We had planned our four-day family trip before I had to start teaching full-time at the end of February.
It took us driving to three grocery stores to find enough KF94 masks for everyone to last the whole trip. Residents crowded the mask sections at the grocery stores as workers cut open delivery boxes—many people just grabbed them from the box.
As we took in Jeju’s natural landmark sites, we also took in the news from televisions in restaurants and our hotels. On the mainland, a Chinese woman who visited Wuhan was declared confirmed and patient cases were starting to appear. We watched how the virus was declared an imminent threat, and how Koreans were demanding the president to ban Chinese from entering its borders. Instead, travel advisories were issued and a limited ban to foreigners from China’s Hubei province was made. When we left Jeju, all travelers wore masks.
We were kept informed as patient numbers grew. The government still refused to close borders, but the authorities began warning everyone to stay indoors and avoid crowds and large gatherings. People listened. Hand sanitizers were duct-taped inside elevators. Restaurants and shops began closing a little earlier than usual. People wore masks everywhere, even in offices.
Brief text messages in Korean accompanied by a red megaphone began to appear up to four times a day on our phones: Korea’s emergency alert system. Its occasional alerts usually warned people about air pollution, but now they were about the coronavirus.
Cases started to appear closer to our neighborhood, until finally it happened.
The 19th patient was confirmed at an outlet mall four blocks from our house. The shopping mall closed for two days for disinfection. Driving in a taxi on the way home from a dermatology appointment, I saw a large truck with a mixer on its back spraying a fog of sanitizer, coating the parking lot. Workers in hazmat suits sprayed sanitizing guns all over the sidewalks. Caution tape prohibited anyone from going near the area.
Then and Now
To understand Korea’s successful response to COVID-19 is to be aware of Korea’s tumultuous past with its neighboring countries. From defending itself against attacks from China, overcoming a decades-long colonization by Japan, and its own military dictatorship, as a nation it has learned that survival depends on the tenacity of its people. It also has to do with the fact that Korea has been technically at war with communist North Korea since 1953, even when day-to-day life here makes you forget this.
When difficult times arrive in Korea, there is an unspoken trust and dependence within communities that the people will band together and fight against it. Korea is a collectivist culture, while America is an individualistic one. As my students and I learn about these differences in class, each type of culture brings advantages and disadvantages. In a nationwide crisis, I have to say that a collective culture and its “hive mind” mentality is beneficial for all citizens.
However, what’s interesting is this same trust for its citizens cannot be extended to the nation’s government. This also is connected to its past: when foreign nations threatened invasion in the country, it was usually the kings and royal families who ran away, leaving its citizens to defend themselves.
But Korea’s distrust of their government resembles nothing like America’s. Even when Koreans dislike their government, there is still unity and order. As the world saw a few years ago, millions of South Koreans regularly took to the streets in calm protest of their former president’s corruption. The president was soon impeached and jailed. Korea’s sense of unity and order in the midst of difficult times is safeguarded in part because guns are illegal in Korea, and police rarely carry them.
Americans are so swept up in their own individualism, distrust of others, and worry over the infringement of their privacy that they cannot, and will not, be a part of anything that resembles a hive mind, even when it means saving the lives of others. It makes a nationwide crisis difficult to deal with. That’s why an American asking someone living in Korea how to prepare for the months ahead is hard. Our realities are completely different.
My husband and I take a trip to the grocery store. When we arrive, we are surprised to witness a long line of people waiting at the pharmacy. They stand close to each other, eager for the line to begin moving. The pharmacist, a man in a white coat, is talking to the people near the front.
Pharmacies are scheduling mask distribution times, two boxes per person. We contemplate waiting in line until we see it—the line wraps all the way to other end of the building.
I tell relatives back in the States: buy N95 masks, buy a thermometer. Check temperatures.
One reason Korea’s response to COVID-19 has been swift is that healthcare in Korea is affordable, reliable, and easily accessible.
Since the MERS epidemic in 2015, Korea’s Centers for Disease Control reassessed its systems and gave more priority to learning how to better handle infectious diseases. Thus, when the fourth COVID-19 patient was confirmed in Korea, researchers had enough hindsight to believe this to be a possible pandemic and acted accordingly. They also believed early testing was the only way to prevent the virus from spreading.
Residents were urged not to go into hospitals to reduce the chance of infecting workers and other patients. Instead, screening centers were set up. For perspective, South Korea is roughly the size of Indiana. Preparations were made for 635 clinics and screening centers.
If someone exhibits symptoms, they are told to call a special number to find the location of the nearest screening center or, if needed, authorized paramedics. For those who are recommended for testing and/or exhibit symptoms after having been in close contact with a suspected patient, the test is free. For those who just want to get checked, testing is $80-$160 depending on insurance. Testing is available to everyone who wants it.
Nonetheless, if one does have to go to the hospital, workers do a preliminary screening to anyone who enters.
I visited a local university hospital to discuss bloodwork I had done a month prior. My husband was working, so I took a taxi to the hospital. Once there, I found all the entrances blocked except one. Hospital workers in hazmat suits were lined up at tables inside with forms written in Korean. Not understanding at first, and with no one approaching me, I tried to simply walk through. I stood there, confused, until another worker finally put a form written in English in my hand. It asked for my identification details, if I or a relative had visited China recently and when, and if I exhibited any symptoms. I signed the form. Only after they took my temperature was I let through.
I also visited a women’s hospital for a follow-up about a breast examination. My husband and I drove to the hospital together. As we entered the parking lot area, signs were posted on the columns in the parking lot and on the entrance door: no entrance allowed to those not wearing a mask. As soon as the hospital door slid open, workers in hazmat suits took my temperature as they asked my husband questions in Korean regarding our travel history and symptoms. Thermal cameras monitored us from the moment we stepped inside. Our bodies showed yellow. I signed a form. Then my husband told me he had to leave. He said if someone was not directly needed for the appointment, they could not go in. He waited in the car.
When my friends outside of Korea keep asking me how I am dealing with being inside, I don’t know how to tell people that I’m already used to it here.
Solitude has been part of my life since arriving in Korea. The language barrier is real. I can phonetically read Korean and can understand conversations within context, but I cannot form meaningful sentences yet. I often rely on my husband for translation. I also lack an artist/writer community, so I often use social media to stay connected.
What’s difficult is that I was never the type of writer who enjoyed solitude much. In fact, 2020 was the year I wanted to limit my work hours outside of class and explore. I had plans to visit Seoul to go to its historical museums and seek out art exhibitions.
When I walk outside to take the recycling and garbage out, I stand for a few seconds and just feel the air—I am forgetting what air feels like. It’s been almost two months since we’ve been inside. Two weeks ago, a friend that lives nearby went on a walk with me for fresh air. We were hesitant to go into public, but we thought the parks would be empty. Surprisingly, there were a decent amount of people. Days later, her neighbor was confirmed to have the coronavirus. We haven’t seen each other since.
I should mention that we are allowed to go outside whenever we want; Songdo has never officially been on any lockdown. In fact, the city of Daegu and Cheongdo county have been the only places issued a voluntary lockdown due to a super spreader incident. However, the government highlighted that Daegu’s containment was not isolation but a more extreme measure of testing. This is when Korea had the idea to build drive-through screening centers, which now see thousands of people a day.
The ultimate success in Korea’s continued handling of the virus relies on the complete transparency provided by the authorities and on residents’ cooperation.
A live map of all patients’ location is immediately updated on the Internet. City-wide weekly reports in Korean and English are distributed that describe the community’s preventative measures and how many have been confirmed to have the virus, how many have been contacted, how many tested, and how many are in self-quarantine.
Travel routes of confirmed patients are also shared with residents. Everyone who has traveled to these areas on the specific dates listed is encouraged to be tested. Close contacts are tested immediately, and even after testing negative, they are expected to self-quarantine for 14 days, then get tested again to make sure it is safe to leave their house. Violation of this self-quarantine results in heavy fines or imprisonment with labor.
Here is an excerpt of a travel route:
Morning assembly (second floor at office) with a mask – (8:50) At the parking lot of the
office, with a mask – on foot – (9:00) Pharmacy 1 (Bupyeong-gu) with a mask
Pharmacy 1: couldn’t remember the name and didn’t go inside (self-statement)Friday March 6th (23:15) At the restaurant in Yonghyeon-dong (Sitting with a confirmed
Michuholgu patient) – With own car (using 1899 chauffer app) – Came homeSaturday March 7th (19:38) Had delivery food from 00 restaurant in Songdo-dong – (20:30-
21:20) Visited Costco, with a maskThe travel route of a confirmed patient’s child
00 hagwon (temporarily closed) 6th floor at Globalcity Praza – The spouse and child of
confirmed patient have tested negative
While most in Korea are thankful for the details, some Koreans are expressing worry. Korea’s patient travel routes are so transparent that married citizens are beginning to be caught in affairs. Businesses complain that residents can piece together where the confirmed patient went, and be ostracized by the public. Even though confirmed patients are not named, neighbors have figured out who they are and have unnecessarily targeted family members. The question of what is too much information to give to the public is still being answered.
A difference between America and Korea is that Koreans do not panic. My husband didn’t believe Americans panic bought until he had moved to Florida to study for his masters, and a hurricane was coming. He had gone to the grocery store—the shelves were empty. Meanwhile, grocery stores in Korea stay stocked. Most of the time, though, we rely on Korea’s booming online shopping system and overnight delivery. Sometimes items are sold out, like bananas or bottled water. In that case, we head to the nearest chain.
Furthermore, eating outside is cheap here, and restaurants are still open. Many frequently deliver food and have late-night caps. Delivery bikes can be seen and heard zipping through sidewalks and streets. On a rare occasion, we get a craving to not eat at home, and we give in to the risk. It’s Saturday night and my husband and I walk to the nearest gogi jip—meat house—for some samgyeopsal (pork). When we walk into the restaurant, every table is full.
I receive another alert on my phone. This message is telling us to avoid going to highly frequented areas until April 4th. Our physical classes are tentatively scheduled to begin April 6th.
On weekdays, I sit glued to my computer from morning until evening. I livestream classes, prep and grade assignments, and conference with students. At night when my husband comes home from working as a staff member at the university, we eat dinner and watch Netflix. Then I go back to the computer again before sleeping. On the weekends we sleep in. I read. He plays games on his PC. We eat together. I prep for classes. We sleep.
My in-laws video chat us from Daejeon. My father-in-law just finished self-quarantine and tested negative. They are celebrating with fried chicken. They ask how my parents are doing. I haven’t talked to my parents since last month, when the virus was beginning to spread. My mom and dad are both nurses.
I text my mom to ask how everyone is. She tells me about my four siblings in the U.S.—some are working from home; some are not. She sends me pictures of the spring bulbs my dad thought to plant in the garden last fall.
I ask if they were being provided hazmat suits at work. My mom says they were used two weeks ago for a suspected TB case, but she doesn’t know how many are available. She tells me they designated the fourth floor of her hospital for potential virus patients, and they were asking for more hazmat suits. However, they are worried that companies will be too swamped with orders to deliver soon. My dad works at a surgical center, but his hours have been cut in half. My mom tells me they are excited that he just got extra work being a visitor screener at the main entrance to the hospital. For the first time, I begin to feel a little nervous.
When she told my dad I texted, he wanted her to tell me: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Then she adds, “He’s joking as usual.”
The feeling in the pit of my stomach grows.
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