Monday, March 16, 2020

COVID-19: the view from Seoul

I can't speak for everyone living in Seoul, but my impression of the COVID-19 outbreak, thus far, has been that South Korea has handled the matter in a mostly professional, mostly civilized way. I'm reading about empty shelves in the United States as certain idiots freak out and engage in panic buying. I've seen none of that, at least in my part of town.

Here in Seoul, the only irrational rush has been on masks, which are now nearly impossible to find—not that I care all that much. As I wrote before, I got my own mask almost by accident, while I was at the bike shop to collect the bike I had purchased. Masks are of more symbolic than practical value: wear one if you're sick; wear one if you're worried about spraying people with droplets from coughs or sneezes. In my case, I wear one just to keep people from giving me the self-righteous stink-eye that says, "He's a selfish one, spreading his germs around willy-nilly!" And my purpose is indeed selfish: I don't want to be the village leper.

I have several shops and grocery stores in my usual ambit, and I haven't noticed any empty shelves anywhere. Alt-media people like Styx are urging us to stock up on non-perishables like rice, couscous, and so on, but all of that stuff—including the oh-so-sacred toilet paper—is in plentiful supply in Seoul, from what I've seen. (I already have a supply of toilet paper that's going to last me at least 80 days.)

In terms of how the government has handled the crisis and what freedoms have been stripped away: the South Korean government has issued constant text-message updates about new infections, along with constant advisories in the form of text messages and widely distributed flyers (I don't have access to regular TV, but I imagine there have been plenty of public-service announcements both on TV and on the Korean-language internet). At worst, the government has strongly recommended that we not engage in public assemblies (worship, concerts, etc.), but as far as I know, we haven't become China where, according to sources like China Uncensored, the CCP government has literally barred (think: using actual metal bars) suspected infected individuals and families from leaving their domiciles, dragged citizens off to forced-quarantine/sequestration areas, and even imprisoned certain individuals inside metal boxes mounted on flatbed trucks. Nothing of the sort is happening in South Korea, where all actions taken to fight the epidemic have been voluntary. And it seems to be working. True: there's enough of a panic that large events have been canceled, but here again, none of the cancellations are being seen as a sign of economic cascade failure. Certain parts of the economy, like the transportation industry, are taking serious hits, to be sure, but the general feeling is that we'll all power through this eventually.

The protests during Park Geun-hye's impeachment alerted me to how amazingly focused and civilized South Koreans can be when moved to collective action. I'm not much of a collectivist myself, but I admit I'm impressed by how well South Koreans have—with the exception of looney cults like Shincheonji—self-organized and stayed rational. You'd never guess this was possible if your only evidence for the South Korean temperament came from Korean soap operas (a.k.a. "K-dramas"), where people are constantly screaming and fighting like emotionally incontinent* five-year-olds. Koreans get it together when they need to. We Yanks could learn something from their behavior in a crisis.

The COVID-19 death toll in South Korea is still under 100. Compared to a population upwards of 50 million, that's small beans. (The brother of Shincheonji's founder is among the dead, a probable victim of the cult's epidemiological misbehavior.) Want to know when I'll be worried? I'll be worried when the in-country death toll reaches the 500,000 mark. For the moment—and it may be too early to say this—it appears the daily toll of confirmed infections has been leveling off. My intuition is that, by the time summer is here, much of the crisis will have been averted, at least in South Korea and Japan. I can't speak for China, where I think the problem is at least ten times worse than has been reported.

To my Yankee peeps: stop clearing the shelves of toilet paper, for Christ's sake. Don't treat the pandemic as an excuse to act as if it were Black Friday. Stop emptying shelves of a bunch of useless shit. Don't act as if the end of the world is coming when it so obviously isn't. The US's own COVID-19 death toll is, as of this writing, only 57. Out of almost 330 million people, that's pitifully small beans. If you're listening to Dr. John Campbell** on YouTube, then you know there's an 80% chance, if you get infected, that the virus won't do anything serious to you at all. You also know that you're at your most infectious (i.e., to other people) during the first 3-4 days of becoming symptomatic, so use common sense and self-isolate if you need to. Otherwise, wash your hands often, stay away from sick people and petri-dish locations like crowded buses and subways, and don't pick at your face with unwashed fingers.

*I hope Paul Joseph Watson won't mind my appropriation of his clever term, which he first used as a description of the leftist temperament, given how so many leftists reacted to Trump's 2016 election by doing things like screaming at the sky, or howling incoherently with their eyes rolled up into their heads, or flailing about like madmen.

**I just found out that Dr. Campbell is a doctor because he's got a Ph.D., not because he's an MD. He actually served as an A&E nurse (Accident & Emergency), which means he has worked extensively in the ER. In Britain, A&E nurses are the first point of contact for patients just entering an ER. This makes sense since his doctorate is related to nursing. His YouTube writeup says the following: "My PhD [focused] on the development of [open-learning] resources for nurses nationally and internationally." The man knows whereof he speaks.


John Mac said...

I'm also impressed with the even-handed approach being taken in Korea. Here in the Philippines there are implementing measures that are in my opinion worse than the disease. The virus is going to run its course. I understand the desire to slow the spread so as not to overwhelm hospitals, but really the panic that is being generated seems way out of proportion to the threat.

Kevin Kim said...

I hope life in the PI doesn't become too stifling, but at this point, with the insanity I'm seeing in parts of the States, moving back to America doesn't seem to be a live option. Seriously—toilet paper? Talk about magical thinking...