(Editor’s note: See more here on CNN about why South Korea has been so much more successful at fighting coronavirus than Italy. Also, see this New York Times post about how Hong Kong and other cities have developed effective approaches. Finally, this post uses graphs to illustrate the progress of China and South Korea compared to Europe.)
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in South Korea; people are enjoying their croissants and morning coffee in one of many adorable bakeries all around the city. French music is playing in the background while some are reading books and others are distantly laughing and chatting; pedestrians are passing by with their fluffy dogs … and sometimes it is impossible to tell who has a better haircut – the owner or the dog.
Life here in Seoul seems to flow its usual flow, and the only thing that reminds you of the chaos that empties out the streets is the barista wearing the face mask and the glows while she rushes to sanitize the door handle after all the customers are served.
The media tends to over-dramatize COVID-19 a lot, scaring people into emptying the food shelves and stocking up 124 rolls of toilet paper.
But is it really that bad?
I am an exchange student at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea and I want to tell you the truth about how Koreans deal with the outbreak of coronavirus … and what the world needs to learn from them.
You probably already know that a face mask offers very little protection from the virus. This is because most of the masks are meant to protect others from your bacteria and not vice versa. Meaning, just you wearing the face mask will not have much added benefit for your health. However, if everyone else is wearing the mask around you, this will drastically prevent bacteria from spreading.
This is why everyone in Seoul wears the masks. There are very few people who break this unspoken rule, because Korean society is built of traditions, manners and respect. It is understood that you need to protect others from what you might have.
In addition, masks help you avoid touching your face because you simply can’t. Which is a very important factor when battling the virus. They are also very convenient if you want to sing along to your favorite song in the metro or bus.
Lack of essential products
The scarcity of hand sanitizers, which are essential to keeping your hands clean when you cannot wash them, made me anxiously think, “How am I going to deal with that in Korea?” The second I arrived in Seoul, I realized the issue here is not as bad as in Europe. This mainly is because Koreans do not stock up on food supplies, hand sanitizers and toilet paper.
None of these products is missing from the stores.
Hand sanitizers are sold in any store, and there are so many varieties of them – liquid gels, spray sanitizers for the common space and screen cleaners. Moreover, one can get hand sanitizer in every public space for free! The restaurants, shops and malls are required to provide this opportunity for anyone free of charge.
Hygiene in public spaces is the key
The government did not close down the public places since Koreans have a strong culture of eating and drinking outside. It is very uncommon to cook here. It’s rather more common to go out and share a dinner with your friends. In addition, closing down everything would cause a lot of panic and frustration – for both the customers and the business owners.
While allowing the businesses to run, the government has provided the following restrictions and guidelines:
• Every place has to be sanitized multiple times a week. Places serving many customers at once do that on a daily basis. The government oversees those requirements to make sure they’re met.
THE BANNER SHOWS THE LOCATION HAS BEEN SANITIZED RECENTLY (All photos and images courtesy of Anna Bubnova)
Obviously, not every business can afford such measures while facing way less demand on the market of half-empty streets. The dark side of the Korean approach to fighting coronavirus is that many businesses that can’t adapt the new norms are forced to shut down. Walking down the streets in Seoul one notices that every third restaurant or store is closed.
• In addition, restaurants in Seoul are required to sanitize the cutlery and the glasses. Those are usually kept in special sanitizing closets which look a lot like fridges, but are full of cutlery, plates and glasses. Some places provide paper cups instead of the reusable ones.
Heat cameras have been installed in most of the public places. It’s also a common practice for some bar and restaurant employees to check customers with a smaller, more precise hand-held device. If anyone is suspected of having a fever, they will be reported to special departments and tested further.
Every time a person in a certain area tests positive for coronavirus, an emergency alert is sent to all the smartphones nearby. This can be a calming factor for some, but for me personally it feels a little nerve-wracking.
Empty tourist attractions
Being a tourist in Seoul used to be a very difficult process since any tourist attraction would have thousands of people pushing each other. Avoiding hour-long ticket queues used to be impossible. Nowadays, all of the attractions are empty of tourists. Which gives you a full and calm experience. No rushing or pushing – just you and your friends exploring the areas. And, of course, that means gorgeous Instagrammable pictures without any people in them.
Overall, as a European I can conclude with a great deal of confidence that I feel much safer in South Korea than in Europe. This is mostly due to the measures the government is taking to stop Coronavirus. The difference is that while measures remain strict, the government does not interfere a lot into people’s flow of life. Instead, they take measures that don’t provoke panic and massive hoarding.
It is, of course, a very frightening situation to be in such a different country, far away from both of my homes – the Netherlands and my native Estonia. It is also very scary to read the news about the cancellation of flights and wonder to myself, “What if I get stuck here? Will I ever be able to get back home? Will I be able to finish my education? Should I take the flight back now, before everything is cancelled and all the borders are closed?”
But even then, I have decided to stay and continue my journey. This is because I believe that South Korea is doing an impressive job battling this COVID-19; cases decrease on a daily basis and people are able to continue living their lives.
About the author:
Anna Bubnova currently lives in the Netherlands where she studies international business. She’s in her third year, doing her internship at Fontys Consultancy at High Tech Campus.
Anna is passionate about meeting new people every day with genius ideas and collaborating with them to solve their business issues. She believes that everyone is responsible for their future, moving to the Netherlands to seize on new opportunities.
Anna is from Estonia and speaks Russian, Estonian and English fluently as well as some Finnish.