This is week four of virtual school. At lunchtime I leave the apartment. I walk or bike to a nearby café where I order an iced latte and teach my afternoon classes. Today I biked to Shinsegae, ordered my latte and looked around. I started class. Afternoon shoppers got in line for a coffee, or bought pastries, or sat at a table for a late lunch. The space hummed.
For the third day, South Korea reported fewer than one hundred new cases to the WHO. Maybe the sense of urgency lifted? After class I scrolled through the Korea Herald, wondering if there was an announcement to get out, go somewhere, meet a friend, support the local economy. I miss a lot in Korea, for lack of language. And a few days ago I shut off emergency notifications to my phone – the texts announcing COVID19 cases in my area – because I was tired of the small fear that followed reading the names of my neighborhoods.
But maybe I’d missed the go-free-be-well text.
The Korea Herald headlines worried about travelers returning with coronavirus infections. (Our school, and others, asked faculty and students to return this week to begin the government mandated fourteen-day period of self-protection and health monitoring, limiting contact with others to ensure coronavirus is not unknowingly spread in the community. The idea is we’ll all be ready to be on campus after spring break). The Korea Herald also reported another delay to the start of the Korean school year, now pushed to April sixth. And another headline mentioned coronavirus clusters in Seoul: a call center, a church.
So nothing about tossing caution.
I heard five people cough during the four hours I taught and wrote at Shinsegae. I washed my hands four times. I wondered if there would be a Jukejeon cluster next.
At a table near me, three women in their forties and fifties were talking. “Do you speak English?” I asked. One nodded. She wore thick rimmed cat eye glasses. I asked why so many people were out. I explained that last week when I came here in the afternoon, there was hardly anyone out. “Did the government say it’s okay to be out again?” The cat eye woman laughed. She said, “No! It is not recommended to be out.” For a moment the four of us looked at each other, all of us out. “Then why are you out?” I asked.
I know why I’m out. I’m out because I cannot stay in my apartment day and night. I’m out because I want to go for a walk or bike ride midday and get an iced latte. I’m out so I can teach while not glancing at the pile of dishes in my kitchen sink.
But maybe I should stay home.
Last week I took the subway into the city for an appointment and the carriages were Sunday morning light during rush hour. People work from home if they can, and students too.
Should I also stay home? I don’t know.
I like to get out of the apartment.
I’ve appreciated the lack of panic in South Korea. The response to COVID19 is measured. Informed, thorough and transparent: and because of this, I haven’t felt panic. Caution, yes, but not animal panic. For a couple of days people stocked up on milk. And then a few days later, it was ramen. But we shop as we need. Walkers and runners and bikers are on the river path. By late afternoon most cafes are full of friends catching up, or students and professionals telecommuting.
But today was the first day I registered a greater volume of people out, moving through public spaces, touching counters and buttons and rails and doors.
To my knowledge, public health officials here have not imposed a social distancing rule as suggested in the States, to keep individuals a certain physical distance apart. So when I stand in line at the grocery store or bakery, the next customer is right behind me, breathing. But I think the worry is somewhat removed by the assurance that we know if a case is near us, or if we had contact and need to quarantine, because South Korea is vigilantly tracking infections, warning citizens and residents, and ensuring proper testing and medical care.
Today at Shinsegae when I asked the women why they were out, we all paused. Then the cat eye woman laughed again. She said, “We are bored of being home!”
Which makes me wonder how long we can go along with the recommendation to social distance, self-quarantine, work from home, attend virtual school. Because when things begin to look good, when it feels like we can all head out for the day, that is when we need to practice social distancing for another week or two. Or three.
I wonder what happens in South Korea as the coronavirus circles the world. Does East Asia wait for the curves to flatten on other continents before we start commuting into work again?
I did not worry until cases in Iran and Italy spiked. Watching Italy, I sense the care we’ve had in South Korea. Watching Italy, I fear for the States. In January and February I read about China, Japan, Cambodia, the cruise ships, and now I read about Iran, Italy, France, the States.
When I called home, my mom gave the rundown of closed schools, my brother’s canceled AP Government trip to D.C., the likely upgrade of internet service to accommodate work and school from home, and my grandma’s report that people really are stocking up on toilet paper. When I talked with Kate, she sent me photos of her trip to the grocery store, the produce and meat gone. My sister joked that homeschooling makes social distancing a little easier.
People talk about living history. Living through history. Yes, let’s.
But after, we live too. We should consider what that might look like.
“Tracking the Coronavirus: How Crowded Asian Cities Tackled an Epidemic” from the New York Times
The Korea Herald
“The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff” from The Atlantic