When we left Korea for Japan in mid-January, the term coronavirus was, itself, novel. At the airport there was a standard number of people wearing face masks—it being flu season in an airport in Asia—but having now been on this side of the world for over a year, a layperson in a face mask didn’t make me think twice. We slept in 10- and 24- bed dorms in hostels as we traveled throughout the country, giving more care to the snorers in nearby beds than to any lurking illnesses.
As February approached, news outlets started bouncing the same words around more and more: coronavirus and Wuhan and respiratory infection. By the time we flew out of the Narita Airport, face masks adorned every traveler. On the plane I counted three passengers not wearing a mask as I peered out over my own. Still unconvinced that wearing one does anything to prevent falling ill, I had gotten enough nasty looks to know that I would rather blend in with a mask than be the foreigner without one.
Back in Korea people were on alert, but life continued on as normal. We wore masks on trains and buses, but went out with friends in Seoul mid-February, relatively carefree. For the moment, this was still China’s problem. About a week later—the 4th weekend in February—shit hit the fan for Korea, and coronavirus became our problem as well.
A large outbreak occurred in Daegu, a city about 55 miles from where I live in the center of the country. Since then, the rates of infection and accompanying emergency alerts have soared. Upwards of 20 geography-specific notifications are blasted to my phone every day, updating citizens on recent developments with a heart-stopping alarm and vibrate. There is an ominous energy when you are in public and an alert comes, as everyone scrambles to quiet the startling jolt delivering more bad news.
505 new cases were reported here in one day; a few days later, it was up to 1,000 new cases within a 24-hour period. Predictably, the texts started coming in from family members back in the States, all with the same message: come home.
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It is hard to articulate exactly why I did not, and do not, feel like rushing home is the answer. While my family’s worries about my getting sick or being unable to travel home next month as planned are not unfounded, I feel steadfast in my decision to stay put through the outbreak. Oddly, for the first time in this country that I have had such an incredibly hard time adjusting to, I feel a sense of pride and kinship with the people rallying against COVID19. Running back home seems disingenuous. This is part of what you sign up for when you choose to live away from home: it’s not all K-Pop and kimchi, it’s real life.
My perspective on the epidemic has been shaped largely by the contrast between what I hear and read, and what I see. I listened as (mostly US-based) news outlets’ cautions not to overreact matured into preparing for a pandemic while simultaneously watching the largest outbreak outside of China erupt in the country I am living in. Masks popped up everywhere, schools got cancelled, but people did not panic.
I admit that looking at the numbers in isolation is scary. As of this writing over 7,000 cases have been confirmed in South Korea, a country roughly half the size of Oregon, while in the United States that number is under 500. But chill for a second and understand that Korea is testing literally thousands of people a day—-the country has administered some 140,000 tests—-while the US has only tested around 2,000 people to date. The Korean government has set up McDonald’s-inspired drive-through check points where people can be tested for the virus without leaving their cars while concerned U.S. citizens have been turned away because there are not enough test kits.
From where I’m sitting it feels like the Korean government has taken its role in handling this public health concern seriously, declaring war on a virus that is ravaging the nation, and the world; meanwhile my own president gives vague statements and pats himself on the back for shutting the virus down. That sort of avoidance is also scary, and it breeds confusion and panic.
I worry that a virus like this, with origins in that strange, distant land called China, only perpetuates xenophobia. Those feelings are exacerbated by unease and misinformation. I have seen global reports of such racially-motivated violence and fear-induced avoidance of Chinese food in recent days. I don’t have to tell you that this is ridiculous, but I do want to remind you that your actions matter. Support your local Asian restaurants and businesses; check up on your friends; be compassionate. Remember that the death counts oceans away are more than just numbers: they’re people. And they are people to sympathize with, not to blame and fear.
Heed John Oliver’s advice to combat the coronavirus: don’t be racist and wash your hands. Only time will tell where we go from here.