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OPINION

Living with the coronavirus epidemic in South Korea

Last week, I went to the hospital to be screened for the new coronavirus after I learned that a grocery store on my street was closed when news broke that a woman visited the store twice before testing positive for Covid-19.

A woman wearing a face mask passes by posters cautioning against the Covid-19 on a street in Seoul, South Korea.
A woman wearing a face mask passes by posters cautioning against the Covid-19 on a street in Seoul, South Korea.Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press

Since August, I’ve been living on the West Coast of South Korea, abroad for the first time. I teach English in the industrial city of Gunsan, about two hours south of Seoul. Last week, I went to the hospital to be screened for the new coronavirus after I learned that a grocery store on my street was closed when news broke that a woman visited the store twice before testing positive for Covid-19.

Currently, South Korea has the highest amount of coronavirus infection of any country besides China, with more than 7,500 cases as of March 10, yet the mortality rate is lower than places with fewer reported cases, such as Iran.

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Some aspects of South Korea’s response to the outbreak have been controversial. The near-constant emergency text alerts from the government include details of the whereabouts of infected individuals — excluding names — which some are calling “scarier than coronavirus” itself. I found out about that grocery store from one of those texts.

This mart happened to be my most frequented grocery store, not only for its proximity, but because it’s the only store that carries staples of my Western diet: canned chickpeas and baked bread. Cooking was already a difficult task for me, especially now, as a 23-year-old American living on my own in South Korea.

By the time I received the emergency news alert, I had already developed a bit of a sore throat, and later some chest tightness. Was it the lingering anxiety of living alone in a foreign country or could it be the coronavirus? All the posters around town had made very clear the symptoms of the virus: fever, cough, shortness of breath.

It was difficult not to panic: I was abroad for the first time, my fluency in Korean was rudimentary at best, and I wasn’t even sure where the hospital was, let alone how to get there. But I also knew it would be irresponsible to not get screened.

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When I arrived at Dong Gunsan Hospital with one of my co-workers — she complained of a cough and also wanted to put her fears to rest — we were greeted by health workers with bottles of hand sanitizer standing outside the main entrance. We pointed to a poster of a fever-struck person and shrugged our shoulders in a questioning gesture, “Coronavirus?” The didn’t lead us inside the hospital, but back to the parking lot, to a large metal trailer which resembled a shipping container.

Inside, a desk with a telephone and laptop was set up near portable heaters and plastic bins of supplies and bottles of “high-level disinfectant.” The nurses wore plastic face shields and Hazmat suits that read “Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” They took our temperatures — normal, 36.4 degrees Celsius — and our Alien Registration Cards.

A man in a suit, tie, and face-mask translated the doctor’s questions for us. He asked if we were American and if we were military. He asked about our symptoms and if we had traveled recently. It seemed we were deemed not at-risk, but we both got chest X-rays just in case. When they came back unconcerned, we were written prescriptions for our sore throats and chest pain and told to rest at home.

My visit to the hospital took less than an hour, the whole process was calm and orderly. Efficient containment, the availability and low-cost of testing (some drive-through testing sites have even been set-up) and rapid test results sent by SMS contribute to South Korea’s effectiveness in handling the outbreak.

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Curiously, many would like to paint a different picture of the state of life here in South Korea. In an opinion piece for The Dallas Morning News, the author claims that living in Seoul these days is like “living in the end times.”

Complete with a photo of the author on a supposedly deserted bus, with wide, frightened eyes and a mask covering her face, the article was written like the first act of a disaster film in the vein of the Steven Sodebergh’s “Contagion,” which has spiked in sales this year despite being released in 2011.

The article had an alarmist tone characteristic of much of the online talk around the coronavirus outbreak, talk that seems to satisfy some kind of pandemic doomsday fantasy. This rhetoric has also fueled panic, disinformation, and racism surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak, which fueled my own alarm.

This feeling of the “end times” doesn’t exactly speak to the current state of many South Koreans and the expat community living here. Here in Gunsan, most businesses have stayed open, the streets are not deserted. People are trying to live their lives as normally as they can.

The concern of spreading virus is serious, especially considering the risk of vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the immunocompromised — which is even more reason to be as calm, logical, and hopeful about the outbreak as possible.

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After I finished with the doctor, I was safe to go inside the hospital and pay for the consultation. Daniel, the man in the suit who translated for me, told me that it would cost 26,300 Korean won for the visit, roughly $22 American dollars. My prescription would be 4,300 won, about $4.

I couldn’t believe it. I worried that the chest X-ray alone would be at least a few hundred dollars. After my initial shock, we talked about how expensive it was to get screened back in America. In fact, a man in Miami was billed over $3,000 after testing positive for the common flu.

I felt relieved, not just because I didn’t have the virus, but because I now knew that if I did have it, I would in many ways be safer here in South Korea than in America.

After my hospital visit, my sore throat eventually went away, and so did my chest pains. I have been washing my hands more than usual and staying mindful about my health, but largely I’ve been going about my life as usual. Schools are scheduled to reopen March 23.

The grocery store on my street reopened after briefly closing for fumigation, and today I stopped in and bought my canned chickpeas. Everything seemed almost normal.

Coronavirus is rightfully concerning, but it’s not the end of times, certainly not here in South Korea.

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Hunter McKenzie is a writer and teacher living in South Korea.

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