Dispatch from South Korea: Su Hae “Jessica” Jang ‘20

Note: The Mirror’s editor-in-chief Su Hae “Jessica” Jang ‘20 has been home in South Korea since the pandemic led to all students departing campus in March. She shares her personal experience f the pandemic in this essay.

JESSICA (SU HAE) JANG ’20

Both South Korea and the United States confirmed their first cases of COVID-19 on the same day, January 20, 2020. Now, three months later, the U.S. has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths in the world, whereas Korea has seen a sharp decline in the number of cases reported daily since its peak in late February. On April 19, Korea announced a single-digit number of new cases. How did Korea manage to flatten its curve?

On March 11, WHO, the World Health Organization, declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Later that day, Northwood ceased all on-campus programming and transitioned all instruction online. I had been expecting the news from some time before, as I had already witnessed my home country Korea experience the worst of the outbreak when the number of daily infections reached close to a thousand. Nevertheless, I was stunned and overwhelmed. As of March 12, Korea had about 8,000 total confirmed cases, while the States had less than a thousand. Does it make sense to leave a safer country to go back home where the virus poses a serious threat to public health? Should I pack everything in my dorm room just in case? Is it even possible to do so in less than two days without anyone’s help? What will happen to my family in Korea if I catch the virus at the airport on my way back home? Will I be able to handle online learning at home? (Korea is 13 hours ahead of the States.) What if I can’t come back for graduation? What about college? But I was most scared to find the answer to this: Will I ever see my friends and teachers at Northwood again?

Despite the numerous questions floating around in my head, I still believed, or at least hoped, that I would return to Northwood to celebrate the end of my high school career with my family and friends. So when I left Northwood, not knowing that I wouldn’t be able to set foot on campus for the next three months, I said neither “Goodbye” or “See you later” to my friends. Instead, I told them, “Have a nice spring break!”

But by the time I safely arrived home, the tables had turned. Americans watched the exponential growth in their number of new COVID-19 cases with growing alarm. Meanwhile, Korea, which has been a country with the second-highest infections after China, noticed its curve beginning to plateau. All of a sudden, Maybe I won’t be able to go back to the U.S. became I probably shouldn’t go back to the U.S.

Although Korea extended its social distancing measures until May 5, it has recently eased restrictions on shops, restaurants, religious services, and other facilities to allow local economies to recover from the pandemic. Yet I haven’t witnessed drastic changes in people’s lifestyles. We continue to wear masks at all times. Emergency text alerts continue to inform the routes of patients who have tested positive in the area we live in. (The patients remain anonymous.) All students, from elementary school to college, continue to take online classes at home.

What surprised me most about Korea’s response to the pandemic was the absence of any lockdowns. From lessons learned from the MERS outbreak in 2015, Korea was able to quickly contain the virus without restricting the movement of people. By tracking locations of phones, records of credit card transactions, and footages of surveillance cameras, health officials identified and tested people the patients had been in contact with. Once tested positive, the patients were promptly treated. This method of contact tracing, which is used only during disease outbreaks, along with the widespread availability of test kits, which were developed and distributed early on, and drive-through and walk-in testing centers allowed the testing of up to 140,000 samples a week. As of April 27, 601,660 tests have been performed.

Another striking aspect was the absence of hoarding. As I read “Week in Pictures: Pandemic Leads to Suspension of Campus Activities and Moves Classes Online” on The Mirror, I realized that Koreans, including myself, did not stockpile toilet paper, hand sanitizers, face masks, or any type of daily necessities. Before leaving the States, I had heard from my family and friends that they had to line up at pharmacies to buy masks and were allowed to purchase two per week. Now, I can buy up to three masks a week and check the number of available masks at nearby pharmacies with an app. Without panic buying, the public has managed to remain calm.

South Korea, my home country, has been maintaining a comparatively low fatality rate of 2.26%. As of April 27, there has been a total of 10,738 confirmed cases—8,764 have been released from quarantine, 1,731 are still isolated, and 243 have died. Only 10 new cases were added to the data on the 27th. Yet the United States, where I study and where my friends and teachers live, is experiencing a surge in new cases with 999,237 accumulated cases—137,243 have recovered, 56,173 have died.

As health officials around the world warn the possibility of a new wave of coronavirus outbreaks if vaccines are not developed soon, I hope everyone stays safe and healthy. I eagerly anticipate seeing my friends and teachers at Lake Placid sometime in the near future.

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