Hi guys, here’s a fun post I really didn’t want to write: all I know about coronavirus in Korea and some of my personal thoughts.
Obviously, I’m not in Korea at the moment, so I don’t have firsthand knowledge nor do I claim I’m an expert at all. Also, the situation is literally changing day by day, so I’ll do my best to keep things updated when I can. Before I get started, here are a few things I want you to know right away.
Current Stats (Mar 16, 2020 KST):
- 8,236 confirmed cases
- 1,137 recovered
- 80 deaths
- 14,971 suspected cases
MARCH 16, 2020 UPDATES
It’s been a hot second, hasn’t it? As I was getting settled in Vietnam, it seems COVID19 has really spread to Europe and the US, and as I write this Europe has just closed all borders to foreign travel and the WHO has officially declared COVID19 a pandemic. Vietnam, who had seen no new cases for around 20 days, is not at around 60+ new cases.
Anyway, onto Korea. *Knock on wood* Korea’s new cases have seemed to slow down, though from what my friends tell me, school is still closed and everyone is continuing to practice some social distancing and self quarantine.
While Sincheonji was by far the worst cluster found in Korea so far, there have been smaller clusters popping up, like the most recent one that includes 40 members of a church. I know, I know, I’m also wondering why the hell Grace River Church was meeting. If you click that link, the article is infuriating. Here’s a quote “Only seven of the 135 people who had attended Sunday service together on March 8 were quarantined at home after the first case was confirmed, leading authorities to fear the start of a community spread.”
From what I’ve seen anecdotally is that my friends in Korea are moving around but they’re still practicing social distancing and being overall cautious of getting close to anyone. US and European friends are practicing the “Stay at Home” self quarantine and isolation.
Again *knock on wood*, but this BBC video goes into how South Korea is beginning to see a stabilizing trend. This Aljazeera article compares the way Korea and Italy have differed in their reactions to COVID19 while this LA Times article makes the case for aggressive testing.
SK is still at a Warning Level 3 on the CDC’s site, which says to avoid nonessential travel.
FEB 28, 2020 UPDATES
As is to be expected, the cases are still very central to Daegu and Gyeongbukdo.
From what I’ve heard from friends on the ground is that Korea is tackling this very efficiently and transparently. Up to the point that they’re sending text alerts in an area letting people know down to the hour where an infected person may have been and creating drive through testing.
ABC News published an interesting article about why Korea’s number might seem so high compared to other countries, like neighboring Japan. Basically it’s just simple math. While Korea has tested over 66,000 people, Japan has only tested about 2,000. Remember I’ve read the cult has anywhere from 200k to 300k.
The Atlantic also published a piece on how coronavirus may simple become the new flu or cold. A reminder that the flu has multiple strains and vaccines you can get each season only actually cover 3 to 4 of them.
Sources to Follow:
- Hallie over at @thesoulofseoulblog has a bunch of IG stories about the virus, what she’s doing with her family, and tips for what to do to avoid crowds. Follow her if you want more frequent updates and on the ground observations
- r/Korea has a specific megathread dedicated to frequent updates and discussion as well.
- If you’re a women, I also recommend joining Expat Women in Korea on Facebook and looking through their pinned thread on the topic.
Quick Things to Know in General
- Countries are putting bans on travel to and from Korea, so you may have to keep an eye that. I’ve changed my flight so that I don’t fly to Vietnam through Korea as they’re placing bans on flights from Incheon, and I don’t particularly want to spend 14 days in quarantine just because I had a layover there.
- Your travel insurance most likely WON’T cover trip cancellation because of coronavirus. It’s annoyingly complicated, and even World Nomad’s page of trip cancellations doesn’t directly say they don’t cover epidemics or pandemics. Check this Forbes article for more info, but basically you need to have a policy that’s “cancel for any reason.”
- DO get insurance for your flights. For example, I always buy Expedia’s insurance when I get my longer flights. It should cover you once you submit a claim, but at the very worst you might lose $100 to $200 of your flight if you need refund.
General Health Tips for Dealing with Coronavirus
WASH YOUR HANDS
A part of me wants to laugh a bit because you’d think washing your hands with warm water and soap would be common knowledge, but unfortunately I’ve seen far too many women leave the public bathrooms without so much as stopping by the sinks.
Wash yo hands, people! WITH SOAP. Heck, if you’re in Korea right now, and you see someone try to leave without washing their hands, scold them. Say, “Ahjumma/Ahjussi, please wash your hands.” “아줌아/아저씨, 손 씻으세요.”
CARRY HAND SANITIZER AND USE IT
Another thing you want to always have on hand is a little bottle of hand sanitizer. This will come in handy too if, for whatever reason, the public restroom you’re using doesn’t have soap. Use it regularly. Make sure your hand sanitizer is at least 60% alcohol.
GET A FACE MASK
I know face mask effectiveness is debatable, but at the very least they help you from spreading your germs, which should be enough reason to get a proper, N95 one.
AVOID TOUCHING YOUR FACE
I mean, this is pretty obvious for any illness. Imagine touching a door handle that could be infected and then rubbing your eyes or nose with your hand. If you have to sneeze, sneeze into the crook of your arm (do this whether there’s an epidemic or not).
AVOID PEOPLE IN GENERAL
Every introvert’s dream scenario lol. Of course, your best bet is to avoid being in public places. Like I said, if you’re in Seoul or Korea, check Hallie’s IG for tips on where to go or what to do. If you see anyone remotely sick, your best bet is to stay at least 3ft or 1 meter away from them.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE IT
If you’re already in Korea, and you think you’ve been in contact with someone who has coronavirus, first and foremost you want to self quarantine. If you absolutely HAVE to go out, wear a face mask and avoid contact as much as possible.
Call the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) Call Center (1339) for further instruction and how to go to a COVID-19 screening center. More info here
Coronavirus in Korea
Now for the main part of this post. I broke this up into a few sections:
- What is coronavirus? Why should I be worried?
- The spread of coronavirus in Korea
- Ultimately, is it safe to go to Korea?
What is the Coronavirus (or COVID-19)?
Without getting too complicated, coronavirus is a virus that affects mammals and birds. It causes everything from common colds, sore throat, pneumonia, etc. When it comes to humans, there are 7 strains that we know of:
- Human coronavirus 229E
- Human coronavirus OC43
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome corona virus (SARS)
- Human coronavirus NL63
- Human coronavirus HKU1
- Middle East respiratory syndrome-related corona virus (MERS)
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (the one we’re dealing with now, calling it COVID-19 from now on)
Most of these strains result in pretty mild cases. However, you probably recognize SARS and MERS as they became household names. I was 10 when SARS was going on, and even I remember it.
COVID-19 itself started in Wuhan, China and most confirm it likely began in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
The virus seems like it’s pretty similar to having the flu in that you’ll experience coughing, shortness of breath, fever and other respiratory issues. In the worst case scenarios, it can lead to pneumonia, organ failure, and, of course death. Keep in mind, though, that the majority of deaths have been in the elderly and those with already weakened immune systems or other health issues.
- Dry coughing
- Shortness of breath
Of course, overall what makes this new strain of coronavirus scary is how quickly it’s spread and that we don’t know enough about it to know when or how it will it end. Some articles are even examining that it may simply become another illness to watch out for during cold and flu season.
Also, if we’re being real here, China doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation with transparency or public health, so I imagine that’s also a major factor.
Why Does Korea Have So Many Cases?
One word: Shincheonji.
More words: Shincheonji and some Korean culture practices
To start from the beginning, Korea initially got its first patient on January 20th in the form of a 35-year-old Chinese woman. Up until the cult debacle, there were only 30 or so cases. Most had ties to Wuhan, whether it was directly related or simply related to the previous victims. Patient 6, for example, caught it because he was at the same restaurant as Patient 3. Patient 10 and 11 are Patient 6’s family.
Now onto Shincheonji, which is on par with Scientology if not worse. I remember my church in Namwon having a whole presentation of the sketchy cult and they still have signs at the entrance warning Shincheonji members away. It was a cancer to Christianity far before this COVID-19 mess, and its aggressive and sneaky recruiting methods make the annoying Korean JW’s that always popped up at my door look normal.
Basically, the cult was founded because some ahjeossi named Lee Manhee claimed he was the second coming of Jesus. Apparently, only he knows what the bible is saying and has some strict rules for his cult.
Some of these rules make the meetings a hotbed for COVID-19. For example, they’re forbidden from wearing anything on their faces… You must also use a finger scanner to prove you’re attending church (mmm nothing like touching a scanner 1,000 people have touched!)
Basically, Patient 31 refused testing despite displaying some symptoms and then she went and sat in a tightly confined space with 1,000 other cult members where it spread like wildfire. No one is sure if she was the main spreader or if she was one of many who just so happened to be diagnosed first. There’s also a lot of chat of many members who may be affected are simply lying about their association or going into hiding, which is ridiculous.
Either way, the cult accounts for quite a high percentage of the current cases in Korea and, chances are, they also account for many more based off of secondary contact.
If you were to ask me my frank opinion it comes from two sides.
First from my religious side, which feel free to skip if you think all forms of organized religion are cults and the bible is worthless. This is more for brainwashed Shincheonji members:
“God has 10 commandments, and the first three are the most important:
- I am the Lord thy God.
- Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
Hmm, don’t you think worshipping some crazy dude claiming to be the second coming of Jesus Christ would be, I dunno, breaking all three of these rules in one go? And remember all that God inflicted on the world when He was pissed at humanity?”
Now for my practical side. Korean culture has this really horrendous habit of not treating illness seriously. I’m not even talking about mental health, which is a travesty at best, but I’m talking about basic things like staying home if you have the cold. I still remember one of my elementary school students coming to school when she had full blown chicken pox! CHICKEN POX!
Literally anyone who has taught in Korea will tell you how frowned upon it is to take a sick day, which means you see many, many teachers or admin showing up with face masks and collapsing over their desks. This goes doubly for hagwons or private schools where you might as well get ready to hand in your resignation letter if you ask for a sick day. Never mind that I never saw a single hand sanitizer in any classroom or public area until MERS happened.
While I’d love to put all the blame on Shincheonji, and I do hope this really causes its membership to plummet, I think it speaks to the overall way Korea handles illness. The most concerning party of COVID-19 is that its symptoms aren’t fast or initially intense, so it can take a lot longer to get checked, diagnosed, and quarantined.
Is it Safe to Go to Korea?
March 22, 2020
Given how widespread COVID 19 has become, we made the unfortunate decision to cancel the tour.
New Thoughts (March 16, 2020)
Considering how much COVID19 has spread all around Europe and the US, I’m of the mindset to not get on an airplane if you can absolutely help it. I’m in Vietnam, and I’ve had plans to be here until April 10th, which is roughly a month from now. It seems foolish to go back to the US, especially seeing how unsafe and unsanitary the situations at airports are.
Right this minute, I don’t think you should be traveling to Korea only because you don’t know if you could be or could get infected in transit. Now this might look very different in a month, but, again, who knows?
For those in Korea, I would say use your best judgement. Continuing social distancing and keeping some Clorox wipes on hand as well as hand sanitizer is the bare minimum of what you should do.
Below is what I wrote earlier:
Ahhhh now the big question, is it safe to go to Korea? I’m going to hesitantly say you should okay as long as you stay away from the hotbeds, like Daegu or Cheongdo. I’d argue, even if you were infected, you’d survive the illness as long as you’re healthy already. Most cases are mild.
Places like Jeolla are barely effected, and my old hometowns of Namwon and Suncheon have almost no cases. However, I fully understand not even wanting to risk it right now. My biggest concerns beyond my own health would be:
- Passing it on to someone else who may not be as healthy
- Further travel plans and the stress of quarantine
Even if you go to Korea and come out totally fine, it’s totally possible you could be refused entry to certain countries or put into quarantine for 2+ weeks.
If you have trips planned for April and May, like I do, keep an eye on updates. I really do think things will be clearer in a few days to a week. We’ll know whether the virus as gotten completely out of control or if Korea’s current measures are effective in stopping the spread. I’ll do my best to keep this post updated, but, like I mentioned above, your best bet is to follow one of the sources I listed.
Make sure you have insurance and things in place so that if you have to cancel, you won’t lose too much money. And, ultimately, make the best decisions based on the information you have.
I’m personally still planning to spend 2 months in Korea starting in April, and our Korea tour is still a go. I never had any plans to go anywhere near Daegu or the major areas of infection. However, like I said, things are constantly changing, so it’s one of those things where we really have to keep and eye and see what happens next.