Scenes From a Pandemic: 22

31 08 2020

by Kristin R. Pak/ 이영숙

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

Government–supplied provisions for any person in quarantine in South Korea because of Covid-19. (photo: Joey Weinman / Courtesy)

Letter From Seoul


Masks have always been common in Korea. People wear loose ones to avoid tanning their faces or to cover makeup-less mugs. Instead of calling in sick with a cold, they are expected to work with a mask to protect their coworkers. Terrible air pollution prompts about half the people to wear masks, and since antiquity, masks have come out every spring, when the Gobi Desert blankets east Asia with fine sand during Yellow Dust Season. Since the onset of the pandemic, masks have been mandated on all public transportation, including taxis, in Seoul and its suburbs. Nearly everyone complies, with drivers and other riders reminding maskless passengers of the requirement. No one takes violent offense; people are always in your business in Korea. Until late August, following a right-wing rally that caused a spike in infections, masks weren’t mandated here in most other settings. It was largely unnecessary, since almost everyone already wears them, although some establishments had posted signs requiring them.

This past spring, after returning to Seoul from a visit to New York, I’d sit with friends in restaurants and parks discussing reports from the United States about mask fury and toilet paper hoarding and fights over hand sanitizer. Although Korea was “on pause,” we never locked down like US cities. After the crisis began in Daegu, with a member of a secretive Christian church who was a “super spreader,” the government response here and the public’s trust in that response made the difference.

Masks are commonplace. Test results within 24 hours are the only acceptable standard. Everyone in quarantine receives government provisions, including non-citizens. People accept contact tracing because it’s in everyone’s interest — and, we love drinking and socializing with friends.

Besides long-established mask wearing, other aspects of Korean culture and history helped contain Covid-19. The 2015 MERS outbreak had put disaster plans in place, and also activated a sense of solidarity among Koreans. As during the 1997 IMF crisis, when faced with existential threats, Koreans shift from competitiveness to a “together we can overcome” approach. Furthermore, as the national and local governments’ policies proved effective, public trust in the official response soared. In April elections, the incumbent party won by a landslide.

In May, Korea fell out of the top 10 countries worst hit by the virus. By the end of July, we were ranked number 74, with six deaths per million. In contrast, the United States was number one, with 465 deaths per million. While the US had about 70,000 new cases per day, here we’d get panicky if 60 arose. By August, US fatalities exceeded 170,000; in Korea the dead number just over 300. Even with the great difference in population, there’s no comparison.

South Korea, historically in a highly paternalistic relationship with the United States, is not looking to the US to show the way anymore. In some scenarios, like the run-up to the November elections, the US should take cues from the ROK. Here, elections were held with an extended early voting period to curtail waiting and crowding. At polling stations, floor markings made social distancing easy, and both temperature monitoring and disposable gloves were provided. As a Korean American, I know that differences in cultural norms and values would make some of the other ways Koreans have stemmed the pandemic much harder to transfer to the US.

In addition to the two-week pause, involving intense social distancing, the government has tackled the pandemic aggressively with public education campaigns and extensive contact tracing. Text messages inform people about the routes newly diagnosed patients took for several days leading up to diagnosis. Anyone who had been in the same places as a confirmed patient can get tested for free. Testing centers have been set up across the country. True to the cliché of South Korea’s “hurry-up” culture, results within 24 hours by text message are the only acceptable standard.

South Korea isn’t looking to the US to show the way anymore.

People who test positive, or who have been in close contact with someone positive, are quarantined at home with provisions delivered to their door by the government: rice, ramen, Spam, masks, garbage bags for biohazard, water, vegetables, disinfectant, toilet paper. Those under quarantine are also assigned a case worker who checks in on them several times a day to monitor their mental health during isolation. This occurs regardless of the patient’s immigration or citizenship status. The government understands that the virus also disregards these legal distinctions. Such measures help residents who are threatened by disease feel that they haven’t been abandoned, plus it’s in everyone’s interest to contain the virus, even if it means extensive contact tracing.

Contact tracing uses smartphone GPS, security cameras, credit and bank card purchases, and transit card usage. (When a Covid cluster in a foreigner- and gay-friendly neighborhood was sensationalized by a right-wing Christian media outlet, some identifying information was not sent out anymore, like people’s age and citizenship, which could stigmatize foreigners.) Recently, people have been compelled to scan QR codes with their phones, thus sharing their contact information (name, phone number, address) when they enter an establishment that has been known to be the source of outbreak clusters like nightclubs, hostess bars, karaoke rooms, and churches.

Why do people tolerate such surveillance? In so densely populated a country, it’s impossible to do much without someone watching you, even more so in the Seoul metro area, where half of the country’s population lives. South Korea is the most cashless country in the world, and we aren’t going to start using cash again anytime soon. Some purchases are even done through contactless transactions using our phones, whose user agreements allow collection of data. Virtually everyone has a smartphone, and Koreans love convenience. The only thing Koreans love more is drinking and socializing with coworkers and friends, so the high-tech tracing is accepted. Finally, there is the necessary relationship between effective, trustworthy leadership and public commitment to the idea of a shared fight and a shared fate.

Kristin R. Pak/이영숙 has returned to live in Korea after immigrating to the United States. She co-founded and served as the policy director of Solidarity and Political Engagement of Adoptees in Korea (SPEAK), which educates society about the adoption industry to foster critical analysis with the aim of ending intercountry adoption. She is an English professor at Seokyeong University in Seoul. In the US, she had taught English to adult immigrants in New York. She was a Kopkind participant in 2013.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece appeared on on August 26, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poster From Vietnam

Ở nhà là yêu nước! (‘To stay at home is to love your country!’), Vietnam, 2020. (graphic: Hiep Le Duc)

“Vietnam, with a population of 100 million, has had no fatalities from COVID-19 as of early July,” write the authors of “CoronaShock and Socialism,” the third in a multi-part series of studies on international responses to the pandemic from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, directed by our friend Vijay Prashad. The whole report is fascinating and handsomely illustrated. An excerpt:

On March 30, … the [Vietnamese] government announced a national pandemic. The Ministry of Health posted a music video to explain the concept of physical distancing and hand washing; this video went viral on Tik Tok, where young people created a dance to go with it. The message was broadcast within days. Telecommunications firms – including private companies – sent three billion messages about COVID-19 to those with mobile phones. Masks were mandated in public and alcohol-based hand sanitisers were distributed and made available for sale everywhere. Schools and religious sites were all immediately closed.

The government directed public sector units to produce necessary equipment, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilators, as well as hand sanitizer and medicines. There was enough industrial capacity that could be directed to produce these goods without any concerns about price gouging, since these are public sector enterprises. On 8 April, the government of Vietnam sent 450,000 units of PPE to the United States in an act of solidarity.

Vietnam recorded its first Covid deaths on July 31. In total, 34 people have died there. The US death toll is 183,000.



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