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The Peninsula

The Impact of Covid-19 in South Korea

Published April 10, 2020
Category: South Korea

By Emanuel Pastreich

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Seoul Station was the rows of masks to prevent the spread of COVID 19 set up in the middle of the enormous atrium above the train tracks. I found masks with the likes of all the Korean cartoon characters developed by NAVER, mixed together with innovative masks with holes that allow the user to drink through a straw, or with a detachable bottom section that allowed one to eat a cookie while being safe.

The degree of cooperation with government authorities and the sense of mutual solidarity displayed by citizens is impressive. Although I personally was a bit skeptical about the importance of everyone wearing a mask, the coordination between government, hospitals and citizens to pursue a common goal was unlike anything I had seen elsewhere. I only wished that such a spirit carried over to the campaigns to end the use of plastic, or of coal, in South Korea.

You cannot get away from about the topic of COVID-19 when speaking with Koreans. Even young children seemed to have considerable knowledge about the nature of the disease and its impact on the economy.

All public officials wear white masks on television, as often do TV news anchors, as part of an effort to inspire awareness. There is tremendous social pressure to wear a mask and evince solidarity in response to this national crisis—some parts of which I felt went too far in terms of social shaming.

One can see a clear parallel to the collecting of gold by private citizens during the 1997 IMF crisis as part of an effort to restore Korea’s financial security. Or to the rush of Koreans from across the country to the beaches at Taean after the oil spill of 2007 to engage in a massive effort to clean by hand the rocks and the sand covered with the sludge that had washed up. In both cases, the overall impact of the citizens’ movement was limited in its practical application. The gold collected from citizens was not decisive in the negotiations on the IMF deal and the loving efforts to clean the beaches did not restore the ocean’s ecosystem. Yet those efforts did have a powerful impact on the awareness of Koreans of their role as citizens, as have the current work of Koreans to control this COVID-19 outbreak.

Whereas in other countries there has been tremendous concern that the response to COVID-19 of quarantine and social distancing will be abused by powerful forces, in Korea the general population has been willing to set aside politics and work with government in good faith. There is a general faith, which I think is well-founded, that things will return to normal after this crisis.

Also impressive were the many doctors who worked 24 hours a day in Daegu and elsewhere to respond to the need of the sick. Citizen volunteers were also numerous, some of who became ill in the process. There was the potential to mobilize citizens because of a basic sense of trust in government and in other citizens.

South Korea’s coordination between government, hospitals, medical professionals and citizens to rapidly identify cases of COVID-19 and to respond quickly made a tremendous difference in Daegu. Workers at companies and factories willing to work all night to produce masks, ventilators and other critical devices. Profit ceased to be a concern. The processing of data was especially rapid and focused-taking advantage of Korea’s strengths in IT. South Korea developed testing kits for COVID-19 of high quality in a short period of time, some of which may be models for future pandemic responses globally. I received numerous calls from friends in the United States asking me to introduce experts on testing in South Korea and one Korean firm that asked me how they could introduce their test into the United States. The convergence of policy, technology, expertise and behavior modification by citizens is what sets South Korea apart from other countries.

The crisis has led to a healthy questioning of the medical field in the media as well. Attention has been brought to the importance of public health which contrasts with the obsession with medical tourism and the ability of specialized medical fields like plastic surgery to generate income.

The issue of diet and the immune system also has been brought up more frequently in the media, although not anywhere enough. Sadly, the need to strengthen the immune system by eating nutritious vegetables and fruit, and avoiding processed foods with high sugar and sodium content was not a priority in the rush to wear masks.

The impact of COVID-19 on youth has been tremendous because of the overwhelming importance of educational preparation in the lives of Korean youth Kim Seong-gi, retired news anchor at KBS spoke vividly about the complex shifts in the lives of youth that have resulted,

“The disruption of education has been profound, leaving students waiting until April to start school. This has caused tremendous chaos in South Korea, but it has also brought families together, spending more time with each other than they would otherwise. The sense of community was not always disrupted by social distancing. In some respects it was reinforced.”

Kim spoke about his daughter’s experience with deep concern. She runs an art academy for children that developed out of her deep concern for the education of youth. But her academy has been completely shut down and there is great uncertainty concerning when it will open again. Almost all Koreans had a similar story to tell and I was reminded of the broad impact on the economy I saw when living in Seoul during the IMF crisis.

Korea is full of small businesses: small restaurants, computer repair, coffee shop, and study aids. If they are lost, the economy will lose its diversity and much of the population will be pushed to the edge.

I had a chance to get a spiritual perspective on COVID-19 when I visited   Mihwangsa Temple in Haenam, and met with Abbot Geumgang Sunim. Hidden away deep in the mountains, but with a spectacular view of the coast where Admiral Yi Sunsin fought against a massive Japanese naval fleet to achieve a tremendous victory.

Abbot Geumgang Sunim remarked, “Korean society has been crippled by a individualistic perspective over the last few decades of consumption culture. Food, transportation and trade link us together but we did not know how. I think this COVID-19 crisis will serve as a chance for us to understand better how our politics and our economy work, and to reaffirm our role as members of a common society. We learned about hardship and shortages, but we also learned that there many things we did not really need.”

The Korean Model

Korea has emerged as a model for how industrialized nations can respond to pandemics in a human and scientific manner. Already Canada has engaged in a careful study of Korean best practices and is most likely be but the first of many countries to do so.

Korea avoided complete lockdowns like China but was still able to take aggressive measures without the risk of serious political abuse of government’s new-found powers.  Public transportation and many forms of online discourse continued on unaffected. I was stopped repeatedly for a test of my body temperature and would have been further tested had I been running a fever. I did not find those efforts invasive or threatening in any sense. If anything, they suggested a society deeply concerned with the welfare of citizens. Government offices and other public spaces were rendered as testing centers and quarantine spaces rapidly without any lack of transparency.

Emanuel Pastreich is the President of The Asia Institute and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Park-Keun-Hyung’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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