It was 3 AM Arizona time.
I was sitting in the Phoenix Sky Harbor parking lot, bleary eyed from my sleepless night, wondering if I was about to make the biggest mistake of my life.
“You can always turn back,” my mother bargained with me. I had approximately 60 minutes to decide whether or not to board my flight to Seoul. Five minutes before we parked, my phone had alerted me to the Center for Disease Control’s new updated travel advisory.
The message, a bright red headline.
“COVID-19 in South Korea: Warning Level 3 - Avoid Nonessential Travel.”
I decided not to tell her about the newest development. She was a worrier. The Level 2 Advisory alone, which had shown up earlier that month, was enough to make her stress out. Lysol disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, and a HEPA grade air purifier now composed half of my luggage weight. Besides, she’d see it on the news soon enough.
The virus was all anyone seemed to talk about nowadays. It was on every channel, with South Korea leading the world in case numbers outside China, and despite my reassurances (the epicenter of the outbreak at the time was in Daegu, many miles from where I would be living), everyone had advised me not to go. This latest update from the CDC made me pause. However, CIEE’s prompt response to the crisis was reassuring. Weighing my options, I decided to just summon my courage and board the plane, entering a mostly-abandoned airport.
As I conclude my first two weeks in Korea, I look back and laugh at the anxiety I felt. COVID-19 has now been classified a pandemic by the World Health Organization, with cases just about everywhere, and if there’s any place you SHOULD catch it, it’s South Korea. I have been thoroughly amazed by the government’s rapid response to the crisis, establishing drive-through checkpoints that enable health care professionals to identify carriers of the virus and test thousands of people daily. The low death rates and recent decline in case numbers are representative of a very efficient healthcare system and South Korea's "bali bali" culture, and I have faith in CIEE to take the necessary precautions to protect their program participants (something they have done a fantastic job of so far!).
I remember reading a news story this week written by a teacher like myself in Seoul, and it sounded as though we were living in two completely different versions of the same city, depicting a post-apocalyptic hellscape. So instead of clickbait fear mongering, I will try my best to offer my fairest perspective here to those of you reading back home.
Life under coronavirus is not the end of the world. Business continues as usual (though a number of schools have postponed their start dates for the new semester by government mandate). There are fewer people on the streets, to be sure, but it has not posed a severe threat to the day-to-day activities of Seoulites.
Surgical masks are expected to be worn in public, but this is enforced mostly socially by weird looks (though I have heard of some restaurants or shops not letting those without masks inside). This puzzled me a bit given the ineffectiveness of the cloth-like barriers (N95 grade masks are supposed to be the only mask proven to prevent the spread of the virus, and the masks here are all the flimsy surgical kind), but I figured it was more for peace of mind than anything.
There was a mask shortage for a period of time, but the government created a system of allocation for buyers to alleviate the burden on suppliers, which seems to work quite well. Hand sanitizer is offered all around, and people are more cautious of taking the subway. Emergency alerts are regularly sent to your phone if you have passed through the general vicinity of an area where someone with the virus has been. Though there was a large outbreak recently at a call center in southwestern Seoul, I am not particularly worried about contracting the virus. I exercise daily precautions like washing my hands, using hand sanitizer, avoiding touching public surfaces, cleaning my phone with disinfectant twice daily (oftentimes more), avoiding large crowds, and not touching my face. So far, it has been sufficient and I have no symptoms.
In conclusion: wash your hands, and don’t believe everything you read on the news! The stress of living in fear will prove far more hazardous than the virus.