Life Feels Safe in South Korea Right Now

Living as an expat in Korea as they embrace a new normal while my family back in America continues to suffer from an incompetent response

A photo of a sign that prohibits not wearing a face mask at a South Korean cafeteria.
South Koreans wear protective masks and gloves to protect themselves against the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) at a cafeteria on May 20, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Watching from abroad as Covid-19 eats its way across America feels like sitting through a poorly written dark comedy. Except, I am not witnessing an actor play the role of an egomaniacal leader who bumbles his way through mismanaging a made-up virus as thousands of nameless fake citizens of a fake country die. Instead, from South Korea, I am on the phone with my brother, quarantined in NYC; my grandmother who can’t see anyone because this virus could kill her; and my nurse friend who tells me his new responsibilities include holding up an iPad so family members can say goodbye to their loved ones from a safe distance, before they die.

When I talk to my friends and family, I sometimes forget their situation. I’ll say, “So, I was at the gym… I was getting a massage yesterday… I was at work…” and they’ll stop me and say, “Wait, how long were you in quarantine?” And I have to clarify, “We were never quarantined. South Korea acted in time and did a really great job with testing and tracing, so things were well contained.”

Now, three months later, as life tiptoes its way toward a new normal, and as America looks to do the same, I find myself noting all of the ways life has changed here in an ongoing effort to keep this virus contained.

Everyone is wearing a mask

From the first week of February, Koreans were wearing masks. I, admittedly, didn’t start wearing one until weeks later when it became clearer how necessary this was. It is now undeniable that this behavior has prevented the virus from spreading. Every workplace, every store, everywhere you look, people are — and have been — wearing masks. The government created a program to control the supply so that people could only buy three at a time, and only on days that matched the final number in their date of birth. In this way, the government limited the ability to hoard, and ensured everyone had fair access to protection.

Effective contact tracing is the greatest comfort here in Korea. If you have been exposed to anyone who has tested positive, you are notified, then immediately given a test and put into isolation.

Sanitizer is everywhere

You could have a frat party-level K-Y Jelly-style wrestling match with the amount of hand sanitizer I have lathered on over the past few months. It is easily found in every elevator, shop, workplace, convenience store, restaurant, you name it. Wherever you go, you have the opportunity to disinfect your hands.

Taking your temperature

A few weeks ago, I went to see a small live show at a local bar. Before going inside, every patron had their temperature taken. Similarly, at the supermarket, there was a man at the door who took my temperature before I was allowed in. For over a month now, I have been back in the office and twice a day, an administrator comes around to take my temperature.

Two weeks ago, I started back at the gym. Every time I go, there is a chart I need to fill out with my name, number, and neighborhood. A person on staff at the gym takes my temperature and I mark down whether I have a cough and check the box indicating that I have a mask. Every other treadmill and exercise bike is turned off and marked with a laminated masked emoji wagging its finger. And there is disinfectant (not for ingesting) to spray down all equipment after use. This is the new workout normal.

Testing is actually available

Testing is available everywhere or, if it’s not, health care workers direct you to a location where it is — and they call ahead to make sure it is there. Testing is free if you have been exposed, or show any symptoms, and affordable if you are healthy. As an aside, according to my friends who’ve been tested: “It feels like they fuck your brain with a Q-Tip.”

Contact tracing is the key

Effective contact tracing is the greatest comfort here in Korea. If you have been exposed to anyone who has tested positive, you are notified, then immediately given a test and put into isolation. This costs you nothing.

I have known people who have been put under two weeks of isolation. The government pays for everything. There are government workers who are on call to bring isolated individuals anything they need (food, toiletries, and so on) and who check in on them to monitor their condition regularly.

On May 9th, there was an outbreak in Itaewon, an urban clubbing district of Korea. The government has since offered free anonymous testing to anyone known to be anywhere in the neighborhood during the weekend the outbreak occurred, and tracing those who may have been exposed. Because people going to these clubs are required to provide their names and contact information, many of them have been tracked down. Those people were put into immediate isolation pending the results of a test. If they test positive, the government will begin tracing and testing anyone that person came into contact with between the weekend and the time of their test.

People follow government procedures and advice because no one here is downplaying or politicizing the virus.

According to National Geographic, Korea “has also taken a big data approach to contact tracing, using credit card history and location data from cell phone carriers to retrace the movements of infected people.” And, since this isn’t a country where conspiracy theories about shadow councils and deep states take precedence over science, logic, and safety, the article notes: “surveys show most Korean citizens are OK with sacrificing digital privacy to stop an outbreak.”

People follow government procedures and advice because no one here is downplaying or politicizing the virus. People know it is serious business, so if they were in the clubbing district and were notified about the outbreak, they got tested. I know people who were exposed, and they were quickly notified, went directly to a testing site, then isolated while waiting for the results. Thankfully, they were safe and only suffered the brain “tickling” Q-tip.

Should I become infected, I am not worried about losing my job, or not getting paid if I have to be quarantined, or having to pay costly medical expenses. I am not worried because no government official or business in this country is expecting me to suffer, or die, for their bottom line.

If America wants to get back to normal, they need to re-write this horrifying satire we’re all witnessing and start preparing to take care of each other.

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

Get the Medium app