‘I’d Rather Be Here’: An Expat Perspective From South Korea

An appreciation for robust coronavirus testing, drive-thru clinics, and a strong national response

A photo of two Korean women wearing face masks at Jogyesa Temple in South Korea.

ItIt wasn’t long after the coronavirus outbreak started that expats in South Korea, like me, started fielding misinformed panic from friends and family back in the United States. This isn’t new for us. Every time something bad happens in South Korea, misinformation goes viral in America, and we get bombarded with worried messages.

In the wake of this outbreak, these worried messages quickly escalated. Families started pressuring expats to “get out while you can.” Their messages contained warnings, threats, and links to news articles. But many of us responded to this barrage with the same feeling: We don’t want to leave.

A friend back home in Massachusetts recently asked if I planned to leave. When I said no, he asked if I had supplies, if the government was quarantining us, if I could go outside. (Yes. No. Yes.)

When people see the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases coming out of South Korea in the news, what they don’t see are the community and government response. Yes, there are drive-thru clinics. But it’s more than that. Korea rapidly scaled up testing to the point of testing 20,000 people a day.

There are posters everywhere outlining proper hygiene etiquette to prevent the continued spread of the virus. Every day, people are disinfecting buses, elevators, and other high-traffic public places. Everyone is being kept up to date with live stats and newsbreaks. People are conscious, helpful, and concerned for the well-being of others. When I bought a jacket last week, the woman behind the counter handed me a face mask for free when she saw I didn’t have one.

If I were to catch the virus, South Korea is where I’d want to be.

As soon as the virus struck, developers got to work on apps and web services that enable citizens to track the virus. From very early on, I’ve been kept up to date on projected numbers, confirmed cases, number of deaths, and number of recoveries. I can view a map that shows where cases of the virus have popped up, where those people have been, and the time since their infection. There are services, announcements, and constant transparency. If we suspect we have the disease, there is a number we can call to have the government advise us (in multiple languages). Workplaces responded expediently by giving employees time off and transitioning staff to remote work, decreasing the risk of exposure. And to address mask shortages and hoarding, the government has instituted a mask rationing system based on the last digit of your birth year.

Now that things are starting to escalate in the United States, people are hoarding masks and spreading misinformation and fear. Even worse, the president handicapped initial efforts by calling it a hoax, contradicting experts, and making false predictions that it will simply “disappear by April.”

Personally, I’m not as worried about contracting this virus. I am 30 and quite healthy, with no preexisting conditions. I live alone, so I am not worried about spreading it to my family. But what about the millions of people who aren’t young and healthy? What about those who are genuinely at risk if they become ill? This misinformation and fearmongering is of no help to them. Both are, in fact, dangerous.

If I were to catch the virus, South Korea is where I’d want to be. There are clinics everywhere. Hospitals are prepared. Thanks to medical home visits and drive-thru testing, emergency rooms aren’t flooded with false cases. And if anything were to happen to me, there is no company here trying to take financial advantage of my illness. Test costs are minimal. Hospitals are designed to help everyone without bankrupting them later. There is transparency, trust, and community involvement. It is a human response to an epidemic.

Without a unified approach, as we have here in South Korea, Americans don’t know who to trust. This is only going to get worse as more people get sick.

I am truly afraid for the United States. Many people do not have the finances to seek the medical help they might need. They are not getting accurate information on how to prevent the virus from spreading. And with fear and misinformation being spread, people are hoarding masks and medical supplies.

As the number of reported cases stabilizes in South Korea, I feel comforted, because I know they are being reported and handled. Citizens are calling when they are concerned and getting tested at field sites outside of hospitals or at drive-thru clinics.

Please, to the friends and family of expats living in South Korea: Do not be afraid for us. We are afraid for you.

Nobody is freaking out, because there is consistent, unified information coming from both the government and health experts. The shelves of toilet paper and water are well-stocked in grocery stores, and everyone is doing the best they can to take care of everyone else — not just themselves. When we get sick, there are people here who will help us, and we don’t have to worry about the cost.

So, please, to the friends and family of expats living in South Korea: Do not be afraid for us. We are afraid for you. South Korea is proving, every day, that with proper government action and a little bit of community support, the coronavirus outbreak can, at the very least, be managed. I just hope it’s not too late for my own country to figure that out.

Update as of March 24: In the United States, my brother is self-quarantining in New York City, where there are more cases than in the entirety of Korea. His girlfriend is under mandatory self-quarantine because her roommate was sick (but not tested), so they just have to assume they are infected. My mother’s small business has had to close, and they don’t know how they’re going to pay bills in the coming months. My other brother was laid off from his job, and my father is trying to crawl out from under a weighted blanket of despair as his company looks for unique solutions to keep everyone employed.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, we have seen a drastic deescalation of cases and very few deaths, and I will be back at work before Easter. We were never mandated to self-quarantine or social distance. When things started here, the government immediately leaped into action. Implementing mass testing, providing information, managing supplies, and keeping everyone safe all came before political agendas. At that time, I spent weeks talking to family and waiting for the U.S. government and American people to respond in kind. They did not. Now the tables have turned. Now it is me sending worried emails and messages to friends and families to check on them and make sure everyone is okay. And I know it is the fault of the government and certain American media pundits, because I am witnessing firsthand how things can be managed when proper action was taken in time.

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. For updates, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and your local health department. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Columnist and author. My writing is like a bunch of people at a party trying to tell different jokes at the same time. benjamindaviswriter.com

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