안녕히계세요 Korea: The COVID Experience in Retrospect

I’m leaving Korea! The decision to leave has been a long time coming and involves multiple factors. One of the biggest stresses on my life (on everyone’s lives) over the last 2.5 years has been COVID. My experiences with COVID in Korea are quite different from what my friends and family in other countries experienced, and have played a large roll in my decision to move on.

Flying Internationally at the Start of a Global Pandemic

COVID dropped in late 2019, with the first case arriving in Korea on January 20, 2020 while the school was on break and I was on holiday in Spain. It didn’t seem to be impacting my US friends yet, but I knew that my return flight From Spain to Paris through Shanghai to Korea would be impacted for sure. It was no surprise that the flight was cancelled, but I found information online that it had also been rescheduled as a direct flight from Paris to Seoul. When I checked into the flight in Spain, they seemed to think everything was fine! And when I arrived at the counter for my connecting flight in Paris, I was told I didn’t have a valid ticket to board. I was given the runaround for 9 hours as the three companies involved all blamed each other (the company that owned the plane, the company that owned the flight, and the company that I bought my ticket from).

I would say avoid buying from 3rd parties for this reason, but in reality, that often costs much more and even if I had, there were two different companies involved in the flight itself (the owner and operator being different). I was told to wait, to collect my luggage, to go talk to this or that office or desk, to call this business number, to wait more, to just buy another ticket and eat the loss (like it was my fault), and finally after just being a crying mess in front of the Air France desk for the 3rd time, they found a flight to put me on the next day. No one offered to pay for my hotel in recompense for my lost ticket, but they did help me to find a place nearby with a free shuttle. It beats out “Stuck in Bangkok without a Vietnamese visa on Tet Weekend” as my worst airport experience.

So Much We Didn’t Know

In late February, what I like to call “the Daegu Panic” started. Patient 31 (yes the mere 31st person to test positive in Korea) began a super spreader event because they couldn’t stand the idea of not going to apocalyptic megachurch/cult (Shincheonji) and freaked everyone including the KCDC right out, in no small part by lying about their membership and meetings. The government took very strict measures to contain the spread including mask mandates closing/restricting borders, implementing curfews, regular temperature checks, restrictions and bans on gatherings over a certain size, and school closures as well.

When I arrived back in Korea, I self isolated for 14 days (quarantine policies were only in effect for travelers from China back then, and thank gods because the early quarantine hotels were HORRIBLE). The start of the school year was delayed as we all waited to find out what would happen. I remember some of the other Americans in my office saying it would all blow over in a few weeks and scoffing when I said I thought the problem would last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. Denial was really strong in the early days, and the Korean government issued advisories and policies as if they also expected the entire thing to be gone within two weeks. Every two weeks, a new policy or policy extension would come out, and it felt very disingenuous. At the same time we had a government response that was praised globally as one of the best, we also had this sense of denial pervading everything. Not the denial that existed in the US, no one here really thought it was a hoax or a “mere cold”, but denial about the amount of time and impact it would have on all our lives.

B.V. – Before Vaccine

In early 2020, Korea was having a massive (by early standards) outbreak while the USA was still thinking of COVID as something that only happened to other countries. Looking back at the numbers of the original scary outbreak, they seem so small. 900 new cases a day was a national emergency. Now, we’re happy if it’s less than 90,000. The Korean government acted very quickly, and so we never had the ice trucks of bodies in hospital parking lots. We did have an early mask mandate, swift implementation of limits on gathering and public events, really effective contact tracing due to the way phones are linked to national ID numbers, and everyone who got COVID was 100% covered unless they had broken a ban. By the end of 2020, despite only having 6.5x the population, the US had more than 400x the positive cases and more than 500x the deaths as South Korea*. I felt very very safe. Even safer than many of my other teacher friends who had been forced back into a classroom before the vaccines were out because my university continued to use online classes exclusively for the entire first year and only implemented face to face classes for a small minority of necessary training courses after that.

The population of the US is roughly 6.5x that of South Korea (51m/328m). A recent spike to 300 new cases a day and being brings the 10 month total to 30,000 cases (not deaths, just cases). The US has a larger population, but 300 x 6.5 is just under 2,000. Can you imagine your life in America if there were only 2,000 new cases a day instead of (checks notes) 120,000? 30,000 total cases x 6.5 is just under 200,000, but the US has a total case count of over 12 million. The total death count as of today is 501 x 6.5 that’s 3,257. Meanwhile more than 250,000 have died in America.
A country with 6.5x the population has 400x the new daily cases, 400x the total cases, and 500x the deaths.

Me – November 20, 2020

Every single major event was cancelled. All travel abroad was cancelled. I’m struggling to remember exactly when the curfews went into effect, but since I don’t live in a big city, I didn’t personally encounter them in 2020. It was lonely and boring, but I often felt like I had no right to complain because there were no piles of bodies, no one I loved was on a ventilator, I wasn’t in any danger of loosing my job, my home, my health insurance. And, for the most part, Korea was already a mask wearing, cheap delivery food having country before this hit, so the infrastructure of contactless shopping was solid.

Vaccine Rollout

Then in 2021 the news of the vaccine rollout was everywhere. My friends in Seattle were proudly posting selfies and adopting “I was vaccinated” frames on their profile pics. My family in the south were avoiding it like it was worse than the virus. (EDIT: I tried to give some credit to some family members for doing the right thing, but it turns out they don’t want it, and seem to have doubled down on the Kool-Aid since I last looked). Everyone in America I knew who wanted them had both doses, pharmacists and doctors were looking for volunteers to get the shot so they didn’t have throw away soon-to-expire vaccines, and I was still waiting for my first. Where was the vaccine, Korea? What happened to all the marvelous organization displayed in the crisis response last spring? Get me my jab!

It wasn’t until the SUMMER that we were even allowed to sign up for a vaccine appointment. I got a window of time assigned to me to log into the website and sign up for my vaccine location and time. The demand was so high that the website would not be able to stay up without throttling the access. I understand the desire to prioritize high risk people, but I just never got a satisfactory answer as to why Korea took so very long to roll out the vaccine program. Someone suggested they delayed intentionally in the hopes that a domestic brand would be finished soon, but were forced to give up on that idea. I got my first shot in August, my second was pushed back an extra 2 weeks due to supply issues, and happened 6 weeks later at the end of September. My third this past January was much easier to get as fewer people were scrambling for a spot and supplies were more available by then. I did have to wait again for my assigned window, but it was an overall smoother experience.

The vaccine experience: A huge community center building was converted for the sole purpose of administering and tracking vaccines. Outside, people waited in orderly chairs to make appointments, I assume they could not use the online signup. I showed my appointment confirmation text and went in. There was a long intimidating medical consent form in Korean only. A nurse helped me to understand the consent and allergy questions, then directed me to a seat. After a few minutes three of us were escorted to the next building, asked to take a number and have a seat while we waited to have our forms and ID verified. Then I was sent to another area with another block of chairs and another number dispenser to wait to consult a doctor.

There were 6 private booths, and even though not all of them were in use, it moved pretty quickly. The doctor explained the risks and effects in decent English and told me that they’ll watch me for 30 minutes because of my history of asthma (most people are observed for 15). He advised me to take Tylenol when I got home, and very gravely urged me to get to an ER if I had any chest pain, arrhythmia, or sudden rashes. He put a red 30 minute sticker on my hand and sent me to the next number dispensing area. Here I didn’t wait at all but went directly into a booth where the nurse verified my name and what arm I want the shot in. We chose with left because it was closer to her. It was a short sharp jab and she said something I didn’t understand in a reassuring tone.

There was one last counter to hand over the paper I got at the beginning, now covered in notes from the people I’ve seen. I was given an informative pamphlet on side effects and a paper to bring to my second dose appointment. While sitting in the observation room, in socially distanced chairs waiting to be sure I don’t have some kind of hideous reaction to Pfizer, I got my confirmation text (verifying my first dose is complete and second is scheduled) before I even left the building.

The process of the second shot was similar to the first but much better organized and more accessible to foreigners. They had forms in multiple languages and plenty of staff to assist. I went through the whole process in about 30 minutes from arrival to certificate, and they were even able to print my certificate in English in the vain hope that I would get to travel again! Plus, I got this cute button. The third shot, the booster, was held at the local hospital instead of the community center (which I gather had been converted to a testing center by that time). The organization and support vanished and the hospital seemed completely unprepared to deal with foreigners, but that’s what Google Translate is for.

The Restriction Rollercoaster

There was a tiered restriction policy based on the number of new cases per day in a certain area. (if the website is no longer working, you can see a pdf below). It was a little bit of an organizational nightmare, but it was fairly easy to check online and know the particular restrictions in any given city. The number of people in a café or restaurant was lowered and some places were limited to take out only. Private gatherings and the number of people allowed to sit together outdoors or at one table restricted to as low as 2.

Every place had temperature checks, and when you went in, you had to either use an app to register or sign in manually. Even shops without food were limited. I saw a line outside Louis Vuitton of people waiting for another shopper to leave so they could enter. Bus stops had sanitizing sprayers on an automatic timer, and buses had bottles of sanitize duct taped at the entrance and exit. From spring through fall, people could be satisfied with outdoor activities, and the case count dropped to under 100/ day for much of that time. The cold weather drove people indoors and to close windows. By December the daily case count was over 1,000.

In 2021, America tried desperately to “return to normal” with predictable disastrous results. Korea, made mistakes too. Many businesses were hemorrhaging money as a result of the restrictions and were demanding a return to normal. In the second half of 2021, the government lifted too many restrictions too soon and the cases “skyrocketed” (again, in a very relative way think 100s–>1,000s), resulting in an even more severe clampdown than before. I didn’t write about a lot of this stuff while it was happening so I don’t have the best timeline, but I know I went out during the summer with reasonable safety precautions (level 2), and by my birthday in December, any business with food or drink had to close at 9pm (level 4). We joked for months that COVID wakes up at 9pm. I think it was a result of the “Living with COVID19” plan that started November 1st that year and failed like a week later.

Vaccine passes were on every phone, swipe your QR code to enter. Businesses were limited in capacity and often forced to closed early. We went to each other’s houses and probably acted dumber than we would have if we’d just been allowed to stay out until after midnight. It was like we all turned into teenagers sneaking out after curfew. I never understood the logic behind it. I tried to keep to a small group and be safe, but most of Korea just… did what they wanted. It’s an open container country, so you’d see swaths of people just sitting on the curb drinking after they got kicked out of the bars. Police only hassled foreigners about it.

Internal travel was largely unaffected, but external travel was prohibitive. I couldn’t travel abroad at all for any non-emergency reason before the vaccine rollout. Even then, 14 day quarantines, multiple rounds of PCR tests that would not be covered by the insurance since it was for fun. Airfare was 2-3 times more than pre-COVID prices. I spent months checking and rechecking and investigating in the hopes of travelling somewhere that winter since I was finally fully vaxxed. No such luck. Daily cases crept up faster and faster towards the end of the year and the 9pm business closures were not stopping it.

The Phobias aka The Bigotry:

Blaming foreigners isn’t unique to the US, either. Although the level of anti-foreigner violence never reached the peak here that it did in my home country, it was a challenging time, nonetheless, when locals were often scared of us or refusing us entry or service. It’s sadly normal for a culture, any culture, to blame the outsiders for whatever ills befall. While America was busy with Asian Hate, there was a generous helping of xenophobia and homophobia that accompanied the virus in to Korea.

These are not new problems. Enough Koreans were bigoted before COVID that we all felt it. Taxis that don’t stop because you’re skin is the wrong color. Restaurants that suddenly don’t have room to seat you. Shopkeepers who are sure they don’t have your size (even though you can see it hanging in the display). I’ve written about the homophobia in my Seoul Pride posts, but during COVID, there was a small outbreak traced to a gay bar in Itaewon. It was so much smaller than the super spreader events linked to the megachurches, but it was all the homophobes needed to blame the gays for everything.

The majority of my local crowd are also foreign, though I’m pretty sure I’m the only American. I do have a few Korean friends, but they are the kind of people who like foreigners. There are a couple other English teachers from Canada and South Africa, and then a whole bunch of other nationalities represented from all over the Middle East and Asia. I get to hear their experiences too, and even though I deal with discrimination here, it’s nowhere near what the POC foreigners have. Even in Korea, white privilege is real.

The number of incidences of “no foreigners” signs on businesses increased dramatically. There are very poor anti-discrimination laws in Korea. It’s technically not illegal to discriminate against anyone for anything, and so it was pretty impossible to get any action taken. (there are ongoing efforts to pass some anti-discrimination laws, but the Korean version of the alt-right has so far been successful at blocking them) Additionally, we had experiences of being forced to leave public spaces, like beaches or parks, because Koreans called the police on us… basically for being foreign, because we were following social distancing and masking rules. I went on a group tour over the summer to Namhae beach. The tour company had to jump through so many hoops to ensure the permits, and we were all so happy to be out enjoying the sun.

We were carefully separated into small regulation size groups at generous distances and only removed our masks to eat or swim (seawater in a mask is no fun). The locals called the police, and although we were doing absolutely nothing illegal, we were asked to leave. I stayed because my friends had gone on a banana boat and left their things on the beach with me, and I didn’t feel right just taking off without them knowing what was going on. 90% of the group on the beach left. Another friend went on a trip to Jeju and her group was denied access to just about every tourist attraction even though the tour company had procured the permits ahead of time. The employee at the gates simply refused to accept it and turned them away.

The rules were designed to protect us all against large scale risky behavior, but unfairly targeted foreigners. Local/natives could flout restrictions and face nothing worse than a small fine, a few faced the possibility of jail time for knowingly spreading the infection (breaking quarantine while actively sick). A foreigner caught breaking a COVID rule could be deported. 5 people at your dinner party instead of 4 could get you deported. In March 2021 the provincial government in Gyeongi-do ordered all foreigners to be tested. Only foreigners. Other regions swiftly followed suit.

One of the worst was Halloween 2021 when the government announced a literal witch hunt, targeting any place likely to hold Halloween celebrations, which is more often celebrated by foreigners and not a commonly observed holiday by Korean natives, and threatening to deport any foreigner caught at such a party. Also, at one point the mayor of my city actually publicly advised citizens not to go to foreign owned businesses or associate with foreigners. (I don’t have a link as this was something my Korean speaking friends showed me and translated). It was rough. I felt conflicted as well, because however much discrimination we faced, we were physically safe compared with our counterparts in other countries.

The New Normal

In 2022, the government finally realized that containment was a thing of the past, and started to focus on keeping the death count low. With most of the population fully vaxxed, they started to open more things up and that trend remained. Daily cases quickly climbed from a few thousand in January to a high of over 600,000 in March. I myself caught COVID in this time. I had my booster, and I felt safe. A lot of us did, and we were so exhausted of the curfews and the isolation. I went to several smaller (under 50ppl) events and was fine. Then all of us caught it at one birthday party. It was the first real party we’d had since the curfews were lifted, and we were all so excited.

The chart starts Feb 20, 2020 and goes through April 2022. You can see a current version here.

I was sick, it sucked. For me it was definitely worse than “the flu” but not as bad as the bird flu I got when I first arrived in Korea at the EPIK orientation. I wanted to just assume I was contagious and self quarantine for 2 weeks, but my school was trying to get me to come in for a face to face tutoring hour. I got a home test from the 7-11 and when that came back positive, I went to the testing center. PCR tests are free if you have a positive home test. I had the oh so horrible experience of the nasal swab, and got my results by text the next day. I worried about the taxi driver who had to take me, even though we were both masked, but I didn’t have any other options. My “flu like” symptoms lasted a couple weeks, and my fatigue and brain fog lasted much longer. Several of my friends who caught the same strain said they experienced similar.

The spike lasted maybe a month, and although the daily new case count is still measured in the 10,000s rather than the 1,000s, it’s getting better, and most people have mild cases and easy recoveries. The last restrictions were lifted including the outdoor mask mandate and the travel quarantines. Outdoor festivals are back this summer, and no one has to scan a QR code at the door of every café. We still mask up indoors when not eating, on transit, and even outdoors if it’s quite crowded. I went into Busan yesterday, and noticed that there are no longer temperature checks at the department stores and sign-ins at the food court. My dentist didn’t spray me down with full body disinfectant at the door like they did last time. Everything looks the same as it did before COVID except now there’s more masks. It looks like Korea will be ok.

As frustrating as many of these things were, I am grateful to have been in a place where almost everyone worked hard to keep each other safe, with a government that offered full medical coverage for vaccines, tests, and treatments regardless of citizen status. The experience was psychologically grueling, but I had a great luxury of safety in my health and my job. Just my luck to make it through all the hard parts and go when the sun comes out. Though as much as I treasure my time here, I don’t think even a fully functional Korea can fill the hole that COVID has left in my soul. I need more. It’s time to go.

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