I was planning on going home mid-March for spring break and I was looking forward to seeing my family more than anything. The minute Christmas break ended, all I thought about was spring break.
Unfortunately, I just learned a few days ago that I might not be able to go back home because of the "coronavirus disease 2019" (COVID-19) and no, home is not China — it's Korea.
South Korea's current COVID-19 situation
South Korea currently has the second-highest number of COVID-19 patients with a total of 1,595 confirmed cases and an additional 20,000-plus tests in progress. There are a total of 12 confirmed deaths due to the virus. There are several countries that have banned Korean nationals from traveling into their country, including Israel, Bahrain, Jordan, Kiribati, Samoa, and American Samoa. Other countries have implemented stricter travel restrictions.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently changed its South Korea travel advisory to "Warning Level 3," suggesting to avoid all nonessential travel to South Korea. The first American soldier stationed in South Korea tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, January 25. In addition, a Korean flight attendant tested positive after working a flight from Tel Aviv, Israel that had 30 other church members later diagnosed with COVID-19, according to South Korean authorities. It has also been reported that she may have worked a flight to Los Angeles a few days later on February 19 and 20. However, there have not been any new COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles since the report.
Why are COVID-19 numbers increasing so rapidly in South Korea?
Around 60 percent of the confirmed cases in South Korea have been related to members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, South Korea. Shincheonji Church of Jesus is a secretive religious group that many consider a cult in which members believe their leader Man-hee Lee is an immortal being. During their ritual gatherings, members of Shincheonji sit next to each other in close contact for at least an hour, which may have led to the easy transmission of the virus.
Numerous Koreans commuting through the country's well-developed public transportation system every day may be a factor contributing to the spread of COVID-19 as well. Korea's cultural values of community and its focus on togetherness through frequent company coworker social gatherings, family gatherings, etc., may also have played a part in the disease's transmission.
It also may be worthy to note that Korea's "ability to test large numbers of people quickly" might have contributed to the soaring numbers. According to an NPR article, Woo-joo Kim, a doctor at Korea University's infectious disease department, stated that "Other countries that claim they have no cases may actually lack the ability to detect them."
What has the Korean government done to contain COVID-19?
In my opinion, not enough. There have been some flight restrictions and school closures but citizens have mostly been told to self-quarantine if they experience any symptoms. Despite the board of the Korean Medical Association advising the Korean government to ban Chinese nationals from traveling to South Korea, the government has yet to take their full advice. It seems as though the government is hesitant due to political and economic reasons. The current government, which is politically leftist, likes to keep close ties with China and considering China's retaliation of the THAAD missile crisis in 2017, the government may be wary of worsened relations and yet another resentful response from China — not to mention the fact that "China is South Korea's largest trade partner in both imports and exports, and Chinese travelers account for the largest portion of tourists to the country, making up about 34 percent of total visitors in December 2019 alone" according to Aljazeera.
As confirmed cases of the disease continue to increase in South Korea, the government's efforts to contain COVID-19 have upset many, to say the least. More than 1.2 million Koreans have expressed anger towards the government by signing a petition calling for President Moon's impeachment.
To be selfish but completely honest, I am absolutely devastated by the fact that I probably can't go home this upcoming spring break not only because of the outbreak in Korea but also because it is possible that the United States will put a travel ban on Korean nationals if the situation worsens any further (and I'd like to come back to the U.S. to continue school). I miss my family, I miss the food, I miss my room, the list truly goes on and on. However, I do acknowledge that my not being able to go home is a trivial issue compared to those and the family of those that are directly affected by COVID-19.
What worries me further are Asian communities as a whole all around the world that may face discrimination due to the current situation, as well as Chinese communities, especially in South Korea, as the nation continues to grow anti-Chinese sentiment.
It is extremely important to keep in mind that stigmatizing those based on nationality or appearance is simply unacceptable and we must not let this affect the way we view or treat others.
For more information on COVID-19 visit the CDC website.
For the worldwide COVID-19 tracking map click here.