Though a COVID-19 vaccine remains elusive, the view of the global pandemic is pretty different depending on where you're standing. Lives and norms in the United States have shifted dramatically in many areas since the first Americans tested positive for COVID-19 back in February, giving rise to Zoom hangouts, the etiquette of socially distanced dating, the grim ups and downs of testing availability, and the disastrous attempts to return prematurely to work, school, and so-called "normal" life.
But the rest of the world isn't struggling with COVID-19 in quite the same ways we are—for instance, under South Korea's governmental guidance and safety measures, only 393 people have died from COVID-19.
We spoke with Junhyup Kwon, a writer with VICE World News living in South Korea, about what life is like in a country where COVID-19 has been less of a challenge to control.
VICE: Hi Junhyup! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Are you back in the VICE office?
Junhyup Kwon: Hi Katie! I still work from home—everyone here in the VICE office still works from home. I currently live in Anyang, which is a satellite city of Seoul, South Korea. Some companies already lifted their work-from-home system, and some companies still let their employees work from home. Many of my friends work from home.
Before, it was not really common in Korea to work from home, because our work culture puts a lot of importance on the relationship between colleagues. I think that's the biggest challenge for a lot of people, because there is not a big difference from life now to normal life before the pandemic.
That's really interesting to hear. What kind of COVID-19 prevention measures are impacting daily life right now?
Now, the only thing is that we cannot travel abroad, but still, many people travel within the country and go on vacation. In the beginning, there was a stigma, but it has been already more than six months, because we experienced this from February. Right now, there are no big restrictions here—almost everything is open, we just wear masks and practice social distancing.
When we go to restaurants, we need to write our information. We used to write our name, phone number, and address. But because of privacy issues, we now can just write our phone number and address.
Many small businesses are now struggling to overcome the crisis. I went to one restaurant, and saw the list of people, and there were only like five people, even though I went to the restaurant after lunch, about like 3pm—that means they only had like, four or five customers all day. So now, I'm happy and grateful that I can eat all around my [area], so I can contribute to supporting local business. I think this is one of the best ways I can do my part right now.
What is it like spending time with friends and family right now?
I live with my family members, and I don't have any difficulty socializing with friends or family members, because we can go anywhere. We can go to a shopping mall, the cinema, everywhere. The only thing is we need to wear face masks. So everyone here is wearing a face mask. And sometimes it's not easy to wear face masks.
I went to see a musical performance. I had to wear the face mask for over two hours, and I found it so stuffy, so I don't want to go see a musical performance again.
But nightlife is different. Nightclubs, like those in Itaewon, are restricted. Even though bars are open… Last month, I went to one district to meet my friend at a small bar, but there were many people, so I was a little bit worried. What if I got the virus? After the meetup, I felt a little bit sick and I didn't know why, but I was still worried! I think it was a big mistake to go and meet my friend there. I was OK, luckily. I didn't get the virus. But every time we have that kind of pressure: What if we get the virus when we meet friends, because you never know. I think everyone still feels that kind of pressure.
What about dating? Any changes in how people meet?
I personally think that it's hard to meet new people, because we never know who has the virus. People now are meeting people they already know. We have a kind of culture of blind dates, so people introduce their friends and they maybe go out, but it's hard to introduce someone you don't know to your friends. So, people now are having a hard time meeting a new partner.
People are using dating apps, but I think they just talk. I use dating apps, but I just talk online, I don't actually meet anyone. Of course, there will be people who meet potential partners in person, but I think less than before.
What is working out like right now?
When we work out, we usually go to the gym, I also go to the gym. But we have to wear face masks in the gym when we work out. So I feel very stuffy. [laughs] Yeah. It's not easy to run with face masks, but everyone is wearing face masks. I asked my mom and my friends how they work out, and they said they also do training via Youtube channels.
Do you know how long the measures you have right now will stay in place?
The government has been announcing what the measures are about every two weeks around Friday or Sunday. Depending on the number of cases, they'll let us know whether to raise the measures or ease the measures. So we have like, three steps, social distancing level one, social distancing level two, and social distancing level three. Right now, we're in level two, so up to 50 people can be indoors, with distancing and mask-wearing.
We experienced level 2.5 from September 4 to September 13, and our life changed very dramatically, because we were not able to sit at a cafe or a bakery, and restaurants also couldn't operate after 9:00p.m., they could only do delivery.
In the U.S., there's been a ton of backlash to mask-wearing. Has anything similar happened in S. Korea?
It's unusual, but it happens. I saw a video on Twitter where a man took off his slipper and began to slap fellow passengers on a train, because he refused to wear a mask and they called him out for disobeying the measures. Of course, he was arrested later.
Ah! That's terrible! It seems like COVID-19 rates are down in Korea right now, at least—what has the process of testing and contact tracing been like?
Personally, I have never gotten a coronavirus test, because I usually don't go out. I usually work from home. Did you have to get the test?
Yeah, I've gotten it. I've taken it twice, once the regular one which took around a week to get back, and a rapid one that I got back in three hours.
I see. One of my friends also got coronavirus tests. She said she got the test in the morning around 9:00a.m. And she got the results around like 6:00p.m. that day… So it was quite quick, like within one or two days you can get the receipt. It has always been pretty fast. We can go to our health center near our home, and it's quite close for everyone.
Because testing is the core of containing the coronavirus, we are putting a lot of importance on testing. And we are receiving a lot of messages from the city government telling you all where patients have been in your area in your city—like, six or 10 messages every day. This is very annoying, I didn't like it. I honestly turned off the alarm.
How do you feel about the way your government has responded to COVID-19?
I think most people agree that the authorities are doing great, because they always try to give information transparently. Many people like Jung Eun-kyeong, the female leader of the health authority. She's like the hero of the whole country. I heard that she doesn't go back home. She lives in the office and tries to contain the virus. People really respect her.
Wow, that's… very different from the attitude in the U.S. Is there anything else that COVID-19 has changed, or anything else you've found particularly striking?
I feel hopeful about the future. But it's very sad to see babies and children are all wearing face masks. When I was a child, I didn't wear face masks. But now, even small babies also have to wear face masks. I've seen some babies crying out, because they didn't like to wear face masks. But their moms had to force them to wear face masks. And it was very depressing. But they think it's quite normal, because since they've been alive, they have seen people all wearing face masks on the street. So, sometimes I feel it's very strange to see all the people on the street in masks, but already that has become normal. And that's the most scary part, how quickly it has become normal.
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