Life in South Korea During the COVID-19 Outbreak


Wandering Seoul Column:

Prepare to immerse yourself into the historically beautiful, technologically advanced and remarkable culture of South Korea. CUB Magazine’s column ‘Wandering Seoul’, written by Ruby Punt, aims to dispense with overusing itineraries and reflect the extraordinary personal experience South Korea has to offer, whilst also challenging many western misconceptions about South Korea. All that’s left to say is 읽어 주셔서 감사합니다 .

Characterised by flu-like symptoms, COVID-19 is a type of corona virus that originated in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019. The disease quickly spread from China across Asia, toward the beginning of the year, and is currently making its way through Europe. At the time of writing, the virus is confirmed to have infected 171,914 individuals: 8,263 of which from South Korea, and 1,319 of which from the UK. Despite these worrying numbers, 92% of these cases have either been cured or discharged. For many, the disease is no worse than the flu. As many note, senior citizens and those with pre-existing conditions are most at risk. For those aged 40-49 years, the death rate probability is a mere 0.4%, whilst the probability for 70-79-year-olds jumps to 8.0%. However, it is important to remember that the death rate of all cardiovascular disease cases is 10.5%, and is therefore just as likely, if not more. 


How did it spread in South Korea?

First confirmed in South Korea on January 20th 2020, the virus was carefully managed for a month with only 30 individuals; however, this quickly changed after “patient 31”. Patient 31 has been found to have visited both Seoul and Daegu, before her diagnosis, and was in a minor traffic accident on February 6th, after which she was checked into a hospital in Daegu. During her hospitalisation, she attended two services at the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus: a fringe Church accused of being a cult. In between church visits, doctors suggested she get tested for the virus as she was displaying believed symptoms, such as a high fever. Rather than follow these recommendations, she met with a friend and went to a buffet lunch. It was not until February 18th that she was finally tested for the virus, and was confirmed as the 31st patient. Within days, countless more people contracted the disease, many of which were members of the Shincheonji Church. 


What measures have the South Korean government taken? 

In an attempt to quickly prevent the spread of the virus, the South Korean government has provided free testing to all. Train stations, bus terminals and areas known to be crowded, are filled with testing stands. So that anyone displaying early (or late) symptoms can be attended to and quarantined. Dotted along the streets, you will even find sanitising stations put out by local businesses to ensure the safety of their community. 

After witnessing the widespread panic that resulted in the mass buying of masks, the government implemented a structure to manage the number of masks individuals can obtain each week. Each week – on a weekday corresponding to the year of birth – the public can buy a pack of masks. For example, those born in 19X1 and 19X6 can buy masks on Mondays; 19X2 and 19X7 on Tuesdays; Saturday and Sundays are available to everyone assuming they missed their designated day. Masks are commonly used in South Korea, among other places, to stop the spread of germs, and whilst there is little evidence to support masks as an effective tool against airborne viruses, there is evidence that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions”

Another measure that has been taken includes areas with high numbers of infected people, such as Daegu, being placed into lockdown, to prevent the virus being spread further around the country. By controlling these zones, the government is able to focus medical care toward these ‘clusters’ of patients and identify everyone who may have come into contact with the virus. For people living in these areas, life is described as “stifling” and “scary”: everyone is anxious about leaving their homes and simple tasks such as receiving food deliveries are completed with caution and panic. 


[Photo: Ruby Punt]

What has life been like in South Korea?

Many describe the streets of Seoul to be apocalyptic wastelands. But, in my experience, it is nowhere near that extreme. Since the outbreak, I have spent perhaps four weekends in central Seoul and one in Busan, and each time restaurants have been open, people have been shopping, life hasn’t stopped in these places. Of course, life here is different to how it was before COVID-19: the streets are quieter and filled with banners providing hygiene tips, the tourist hotspots are closed, and people are noticeably practicing social distancing.

Interestingly, I have found rural areas have been impacted by the coronavirus much more than these larger cities. With higher populations of senior citizens, towns like Jinbu are filled with mass panic because for them a confirmed case could be disastrous. Due to this fear, it is common for people to avoid you – even if you wear a mask – they will uncomfortably shuffle away or plainly tell you to leave. Racism toward foreigners is increasingly common, they are afraid of anyone who might bring sickness to their town, even if they know you have lived there for months. It is important to understand that this is all caused by the panic the virus has brought these people; they have been told that if they get unwell they are likely to die, so it is understandable why they react in this way, but this doesn’t make it easier for foreigners to experience. 


As England begins to go through this pandemic, it is vital to remember not to panic. In times of disaster, it is important to come together and look after one another; fear will only lead to further problems. For many of us, the virus is unlikely to have a major impact on our health, but this does not mean we shouldn’t be vigilant with our hygiene. 

Try making your own cloth face mask to reduce the number of times you touch your face directly, whilst this will not protect you 100%, it is better than nothing. In fact, the CDC has even recommended the use of cloth face masks in public settings (alongside other precautionary measures such as social distancing and avidly washing your hands). Happy DIY Home has released a free set of instructions on how to make your own cloth face masks, be sure to check them out!

Further, with universities moving toward online classes, use this opportunity to focus on yourself. Semester two can be one of the most stressful times of the year, so with this extra time focus on productivity and monitoring your well-being. I find that I can complete an hours’ worth of work at university within half the time at home. Use your time wisely, and be sure to contact your advisor if you are experiencing any troubles or concerns. Now please go wash your hands.

CUB’s Ruby Punt is a third year comparative literature student, currently embedded in Seoul, South Korea. She is exceedingly sporty: regularly rock climbing, hiking and practicing pole fitness (with a spot of skiing on the side). She enjoys reading fiction and, despite her athletic disposition, has an ‘unhealthy’ Netflix addiction. 

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