Watching the pandemic from abroad
Life in Seoul during COVID-19
By Nick Giokas, Contributor
It is difficult to put into words just how abnormally normal daily life in Seoul has become. At a fundamental level, very little has changed for me. I still have homework and classes. I listen to podcasts on my metro commutes. I bargain hunt at grocery stores.
Yet at the same time, life has very much changed. All my classes are online for the foreseeable future (my University, Yonsei, is looking to return to normal by April 13 at the earliest). My fellow commuters all wear masks. Cashiers always have a bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready and use it constantly.
Despite these changes to daily life there isn’t a sense of anxiety or fear present. It feels as though not wearing masks on the metro and not sanitizing one’s hands all the time is more of a faux pas than a reckless act in the midst of a pandemic, which makes it feel incredibly strange watching the news reports from back home, the US, and Europe.
There, it seems like abject chaos. It was terrifying watching the videos of people hoarding toilet paper and disinfectant supplies. It’s concerning watching more and more places shut down. It feels inconceivable to see entire cities under quarantine. Despite the fact that COVID-19 is the same disease here as it is there, it feels like a completely different pandemic. The kinds of drastic measures governments are having to take to “flatten the curve” have an almost unbelievable quality to them.
In Korea, the borders remain completely open. The only differences are temperature tests and that immigration officers now ensure that incoming travelers have a Korean cell number so that they can be tracked and receive alerts concerning the virus. Bars, restaurants, everything down to department stores, remain open for business.
The only thing that has truly changed is that events or meetings of large groups of people are highly discouraged, but not necessarily banned. The definition of “social distancing” in Korea, for all intents and purposes, seems truly different than the rest of the world.
The reason for this is the prevalence of testing and the “track and trace” method the government uses. If I’m concerned I may have COVID-19 it is remarkably easy to get tested. I can go through a drive-through test, go to a clinic, and it may be a possibility soon that I can even go to a phonebooth-esque installation and get tested there. Furthermore, I can track where each case is, where they travelled throughout the city, and know where infections cluster.
To use a metaphor for why I think panic has dissipated in Seoul: For me, the scariest part of being in the ocean is not truly knowing what else is swimming out there with you. Once you know where the sharks are, the fear abates and you merely swim with caution rather than fear.