The University Network

Life On Hold – Coronavirus In South Korea

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, the sun felt too warm and the spring breeze too fresh to stay indoors. For the first time in a long time, Eunji Kim, 31, who lives in South Korea, drove in her new MINI Cooper (in pretty solaris orange) to grab a late lunch with a few friends. Before she stepped out, she checked two things first: she made sure she had her mask with her and called the restaurant to see if it was open. 

“Most shops, cafes and restaurants are a lot less crowded than ever before. Even some popular restaurants in my neighborhood started having more days closed,” said Kim. “So I would always have to check online or make phone calls to make sure they are open when I’d want to go somewhere.”

South Korea has been hit hard by the outbreak of coronavirus, named COVID-19, and people are feeling its impact. 

In a survey of 1,000 participants conducted by Seoul National University between February 25 and 28, about 60 percent said they felt as if their daily lives have been put on hold because of the outbreak. 

From family life to education to business, almost every part of daily life has been impacted. Schools are closed. Events are canceled. Shops have no customers. A sneeze makes people edgy. A repeated cough terrorizes people. Put simply, people are afraid.

“I just don’t like the feeling that I can’t control anything under the situation right now. It’s like the whole country is on pause and there’s nothing much you can do to change,” said Kim. 

Families put in chaos 

With thousands of schools, day-care centers and nursing homes shut down, family members who need to go to work struggle with finding suitable caretakers, especially for young children. While most day-care centers provide emergency care for working parents, slots fill up quickly. 

“When almost all kindergartens closed down, many parents, including me and my wife, were baffled as to how to take care of the kids during daytime hours. It’s not just parents, but kids too. They feel very frustrated as well,” said Areum Han, 35, a father of two children ages 3 and 5. 

Weddings and travel are also among the many industries seriously impacted by the virus. As the government advises facilities where events take place to shut down and delay or cancel events, many wedding halls are shutting down as well. 

Even if a wedding hall is open, couples are caught in a limbo between an already booked wedding hall to fill and many relatives and friends canceling their RSVP, as most people are avoiding reasons to go outside their homes during weekends. 

Moreover, with up to 80 countries either banning or restricting travels from and to South Korea, many honeymoon trips are getting delayed or canceled. 

According to JTBC, a South Korean news broadcast company, almost 3,000 complaints regarding refund on canceled weddings and honeymoon trips have been filed to date, because of the outbreak. 

Ramifications of school closures 

While the Korean school year usually starts in the first week of March, almost every child has to stay at home because all public schools, from kindergarten to high school, are closed until March 23. Since last week, many schools started opening online portals where students can watch online lessons, have contact with teachers and download and upload their schoolwork. 

Although there isn’t an official tally, almost all universities, both public and private, have delayed their semester schedule for two weeks, causing problems for students at all levels. 

For freshmen, the hype of starting a college life is far gone and behind them, as some colleges are not even sure when they will start having classes on campus again. 

“At first, I missed all the hype of starting college because all the events like orientation week, when we sign up for clubs, were canceled. But now, I feel very numb to the entire situation as I get used to staying indoors,” said Seungju Oh, 20, a freshman university student. 

As they prepare for graduation, some seniors worry whether the delay in semester schedule and transition to online classes may affect their graduation plans. 

For Dain Choi, 21, a senior university student majoring in education, one of the requirements for graduation is to fulfill certains hours of teaching practices at a designated middle school. However, the middle school to which she was designated is closed due to the outbreak. 

“Since this year is my senior year, it’s really important to go on teaching practices. I’m anxious that I won’t be able to graduate on time,” said Choi. 

As most classes will be held online even after the semester begins, faculty members are also busy transfering all teaching materials online. 

“I had to spend a lot of time making content for online courses from my own studio,” said Minwoo Park, an adjunct professor of music at a university. 

Recent graduates seeking jobs are impacted as well. According to Incruit, a job search engine in South Korea, about two out of three job seekers said the current outbreak made them feel anxious about employment. 

“On the bright side, I gained more time to prepare for interviews and applications. But, I still feel anxious about when interviews and submissions will even begin,” said Jooyoung Yoon, 23, a recent university graduate. 

Religious services going online 

After a secretive church called Shincheonji, which is considered a cult by the mainstream churches in South Korea, caused the recent spike in the number of infection cases, almost every religious service in South Korea has been held online. 

Shincheonji is known for its large gatherings and forceful practices, such as requiring all members to come to services even when they are sick and making its members abandon their families to live and train together in designated centers. After one member tested positive on February 21, the church’s practices allowed the virus to spread more easily and widely. 

“My church has been live streaming services online on YouTube. All members are having house worships at their own homes. No one really expected this,” said Sunbi Hong, 19, a university student. Hong is not affiliated with Shincheonji. 

Efforts to normalize economy

Unlike the governments in some countries like China and Italy, the South Korean government didn’t order a complete lockdown in cities, but placed the most severe alert and advised citizens to avoid coming out on weekends or going to crowded places and gatherings. 

For example, last weekend, the government closed down public zoos and banned outdoor political rallies and public events that would gather more than 1,000 people. 

Although cities haven’t experienced a complete stop to their business, many cities are still experiencing heavy economic downturn. As people stay indoors, local businesses are hit the hardest. On both weekdays and weekends, I’ve personally seen many small businesses either close early or open but empty. 

Moreover, as many companies are requiring employees to work from home, there is a huge drop in the use of public transportation. Even during the busiest hours in Seoul on weekdays, where subway congestion is usually the problem, trains and train stations now look rather ghostly. 

For example, subway line 9, which could be compared to the infamous 7 train of New York City, experienced a decrease in the number of passengers by 33 percent.

Naturally, in times like this, one of the most booming businesses is delivery services. Although South Korea is already famous for its fast and widespread delivery services, the demand for delivery of food, grocery and household items skyrocketed. 

Fortunately, many off-line restaurants and coffee shops do partly profit from this demand by selling to customers through home-delivery apps. 

Face mask fervor 

Another business that is booming due to the outbreak is face masks. Although many experts warned against overreliance on face masks for they can only help people who are already sick, face masks have become a must in every South Korean household. 

Currently, the government estimates that about 9 million masks can be made per day to be available for sale to the public. The government has restricted export to only 10 percent of the total stock and demanded that 50 percent be sold at official selling places, such as pharmacies and online websites. In order to prevent mask hoarding, an individual may buy only two new masks per week. 

However, there are many local pharmacies that are still out of stock in masks. Lines of people waiting to buy masks have become a common scene around the country. 

Unfortunately, this has resulted in many scam businesses and masks smuggling and hoarding. For example, a group of hackers were caught stealing personal information, such as email addresses and bank account information, through posting fake links with clickable headlines, such as “giving out free masks” or “places the newly infected patients went by.” 

The country runs on people 

On Wednesday (March 11), COVID-19 was officially designated a pandemic by The World Health Organization (WHO). 

It has certainly affected all of South Korea, often bringing out the ugly side of its people. 

Nonetheless, the country still runs on its people.

After the Shincheonji church caused a spike in infection cases in Daegu, one of the major cities in South Korea, hundreds of doctors, nurses and volunteers went in voluntarily to help hospitals and government facilities suffering from the overwhelming number of patients and lack of resources. 

To help the volunteers and medical personnel in Daegu, companies and individuals helped in every means possible, from money to medical resources to food to housing. 

Plus, even in the midst of face mask hoarding, some pharmacies give out free masks to students from low-income families and non-profit organizations offer services like delivering face masks to the elderly or people with disabilities. 

“I always thought this world was selfish. I still do. However, I feel like this selfish world still runs because of those few people who are thinking of others first,” said Hong. 

“Everyone’s afraid. But, there are people who overcome those fears, stop with the blaming game and simply do what they can to help.”

Moreover, in a country usually known for its fast-paced lifestyle and overkill work life, most people in South Korea are finally having the time to lay back and spend quality time with their loved ones. 

“I try to think that this time is like a present for me to take some quality break from everything. So these days, I read a lot and spend much quality time with family and close friends,” said Kim. 

None of the positive outcomes mentioned above can — nor should it ever — overshadow the lives taken away by the virus. Yes, the virus must be stopped and no more loved ones should be lost. 

But, at the same time, not just in South Korea but also around the world, the daily lives of so many people enduring this pandemic should be celebrated and encouraged. 

“Although I feel frustrated about the situation, I feel very proud of my country and the people as we are going through the crisis together. This too shall pass,” said Park.