Letter From Seoul | The Nation

South-Korea-supply-store-otu-img

South Korean
government–supplied provisions for any person in quarantine because of Covid-19. (Joey Weinman / Courtesy)

EDITOR’S NOTE:&nbspThe Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.

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.

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.

Source Article