Seoul: Our response

Living under the threat of Coronavirus in the Republic of Korea looks very different to the experiences unfolding in Europe; and yet some the feelings aren't so different. It has given Jiyoung cause to think again about cultural difference - but she remains that the way we all get out of this is together.


The Republic of Korea was one of the first countries to undergo exponential growth of Coronavirus cases. As of March 27th, 2020, the number of confirmed cases in Korea was at 9,332 with 139 deaths. The capital city, Seoul, has 375 cases so far.


Having lived outside of Korea for more than half of my life, I usually maintain a very critical view of my home country and its practices. However, the overall government response and the obedience of the general public against the Coronavirus has pleasantly surprised me.


Ikseondong neighborhood in Seoul. Photo by the author


I had been living and working in Seoul until March 20th, 2020. My previous workplace in Seoul was at a building with an immigration office with a high influx of people, which led to all the employees going through two thermal cameras upon entry and exit, and antivirus plastic films covering elevator buttons. Lots of organizations have started partial work-from-home measures starting from the end of February. When there was a new Coronavirus case in the city or the neighborhood, emergency text alerts would start ringing from everyone’s phone. I was so paranoid at one point that I kept refreshing the website every few minutes to see the number of new Coronavirus cases, which gets updated around 10 am and 5 pm every day. I recently visited a major hospital and got scared by the Coronavirus clinic set up in front of the hospital building (which was essentially a huge vinyl tent) as well as hospital staff by the entrance wearing hazmat suits.


'When there was a new Coronavirus case in the city or the neighborhood, emergency text alerts would start ringing from everyone’s phone.'

Despite the scare, I did feel safe living in Seoul. Starting early February, Korea has started placing free hand sanitizers and surgical masks in the majority of buses and subway stations. Almost everyone on the street in Seoul was wearing masks, and people without masks were explicitly stared at. Since 5th March, Korea has implemented a new mask distribution system, whereby people can buy publicly distributed masks on certain days of the week depending on the last digit of their birth date. The quantity is limited to two masks per week per person: this has led to long lines outside the local pharmacies and post offices, along with harassment of the pharmacists for not selling more masks. However, most commonly used map applications such as Naver Maps show the real-time mask quantity in every pharmacy and post office to prevent long lineups.


Screenshot of Naver Maps showing the pharmacies and their real-time mask quantities near Myeongdong station. Screenshot by the author

Korea has never been officially in a lockdown mode other than the recommendation of social distancing. Therefore, I was able to go out grocery shopping (without ever seeing an empty shelf) at times and travel in my friend’s car to remote locations near Seoul. We traveled to a beach in Incheon, prepared for a quiet picnic by the sea. What intrigued us was that even though Seoul city center was relatively empty, there was huge traffic on the highway that continued down to the beach, with many travelers visiting nice cafes and lining up for famous restaurants. It seems that a similar trend is happening by the Han river in Seoul, where people tired of staying at home come out to get some fresh air.


Seaside cafe in Incheon. Photo by the author


Living in Korea, or anywhere else at this particular time, is a stressful experience for everyone. However, we must make sure not to add an additional layer of stress by stigmatizing others based on their race or nationality. I consider myself lucky not having to go through it in Korea, which is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries with only 3% of the population having foreign nationality. One of my close friends in Seoul is from China, and I have asked her if she has recently felt any animosity towards her due to her nationality. She told me that she was recently approached by a Korean stranger asking for directions, who asked for her nationality. When she told the stranger that she is Chinese, the stranger responded with “加油 (jiayou- roughly translates to cheer up) in Chinese and walked away.


I often (jokingly) tell my friends that everything, including nationality, “is merely a social construct”. Now seems like an appropriate time to embrace that phrase and collectively attempt to alleviate the Coronavirus pandemic.


This story was shared by Jiyoung, who has experience in urban planning and international development, and who now resides in Jeju, Republic of Korea.


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