SEOUL, South Korea — Within the world coronavirus pandemic, South Koreans ought to be dropping like flies. However they aren’t.
Perched on the sting of China, the nation is small, concerning the dimension of Indiana, although on condition that 70% of the land is uninhabitable, the sensible comparability is West Virginia. Packed into that area are 51 million folks, the populations of Texas and Florida mixed.
The nation ought to have been decimated after the primary contaminated passenger off the three-hour flight from Wuhan, China, sneezed.
However someway the Republic of Korea, which most Individuals know as South Korea, has managed the pandemic. As I write this, solely 29,000 South Koreans have been identified with Covid-19 and fewer than 500 have died from it. About 2,000 residents stay remoted. These numbers are like Delaware’s, which has 50 instances fewer folks.
The pandemic, in fact, just isn’t a contest between international locations. Whereas we take delight in how South Korea has been doing throughout this horrible time, we’re watching aghast as different areas of the planet bear the brunt of the pandemic.
Nobody absolutely understands why South Korea has gotten off evenly — at the very least up to now.
The low degree of weight problems within the nation could play a task, as weight problems is a threat issue for a poor end result with the an infection. And we’re not that sensitive feely. Sure, we unfold germs by dipping our spoons and chopsticks into shared bowls, however we don’t hug and kiss. In truth, even spouses don’t present affection in public. All we do is shake fingers, and it’s not exhausting to interchange that with an elbow faucet or fist bump.
However we do like to assemble in crowds to sing at spiritual providers and yell at political protests — or generally it’s the opposite manner round.
The central rationalization for South Korea’s success in taming the pandemic up to now is its technique of focused testing and aggressive contact tracing. That and the willingness of the general public — together with most spiritual believers and political protestors — to observe primary precautions. To date, as colleges have been closed or partially closed and many individuals have spent components of this yr working from residence, we’ve managed to keep away from a nationwide lockdown.
South Korea went into the disaster well-prepared. Its disease-control system had been refined after its expertise with the Center East respiratory syndrome in 2015. A key authorized provision launched at the moment gave the federal government the proper to override privateness legal guidelines, that are sturdy in South Korea. And that hasn’t bothered folks an excessive amount of, though after a mini-outbreak in homosexual bars, a big variety of folks prevented testing out of worry of being outed.
By pure coincidence, South Korea’s illness management management went via a simulation primarily based on a pandemic state of affairs only one month earlier than actual factor occurred.
The nation has a stable biotech sector, which shortly produced testing kits, and hospitals quickly adjusted to rearrange testing, together with drive-thru services wherein there isn’t any have to get out of your automotive.
The nation’s extremely developed e-commerce and residential supply techniques additionally helped ease the ache. There was no panic shopping for, no cabinets devoid of bathroom paper. Orders made late at evening appeared on folks’s doorstep by daybreak.
Inside days of the outbreak, folks took to carrying face masks and disinfecting their fingers. It was right here that my foreignness got here to the fore. South Koreans are used to carrying masks once they have colds or on days when the air high quality is particularly unhealthy. I had by no means bothered to do this. However after a few month of being the one mask-less individual on the street, I surrendered as a result of I didn’t need to be the ugly foreigner and since I had swung round to pondering that it made sense: If I’m contaminated, I gained’t infect anybody else, and vice versa. And simply in case some contaminated individual has left droplets hanging within the air and I stroll into them, I’ll have a greater likelihood of not inhaling them. I’ve seen that I haven’t but had both of the 2 colds I get yearly. And with winter coming, the masks retains me heat. I’d simply preserve this up.
As with all over the place else, the economic system of South Korea has taken an enormous hit. In macro phrases, the gross home product was down 1.3% within the first quarter of 2020 and three.2% within the second quarter. However it bounced again up 1.9% within the third quarter.
Although encouraging, these figures masks lots of disruption on the bottom. Airways, inns, eating places, barber outlets, magnificence parlors, and plenty of small companies are struggling. I’ve not seen the numbers, however I’ve been instructed that small pediatric clinics are in hassle as a result of kids who’re staying away from faculty and carrying face masks aren’t catching their normal variety of respiratory infections.
Some firms restrict the quantity of people that might be within the workplace and ask them to earn a living from home on a rotational foundation. That is already altering the tradition of many firms. And colleges stay solely partially open, which has resulted within the father or mother or grandparent who stays at residence changing into extra concerned and extra conscious of how good or not so good academics are.
However as we mirror on the excessive demise toll in america, Europe, and elsewhere, I’m wondering if we in South Korea haven’t additionally benefited from a sure fatalism. It appears to me that individuals listed here are fatalistic, in distinction to the optimistic Individuals who stroll down the road assured that each one will probably be nicely. They envisage themselves catching the virus and so are instantly motivated to do what was already acquainted — placed on a face masks and use hand sanitizer.
Michael Breen lives and works in South Korea and is the creator of “The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation” (Macmillan, 2017).