Sat Mar 20 14:11:33 KST 2021
I had my first covid test this morning.
I wasn’t symptomatic, nor had I been in contact with anyone who had tested positive. Nevertheless the test was mandated.
This was because I am a foreigner in Korea. More specifically, I’m a foreigner in the Gyeonggi-do province in Korea.
A couple of weeks ago, the governor of Gyeonggi-do, Lee Jae-myung, ordered that all 85,000 foreign workers in the province had to get tested for coronavirus within a 2 week period, or face fines of up to $3000.
In February, a screening of foreign workers at a factory in Gyeonggi-do returned a high covid-postitive rate (around 19%), so there were fears about a new spread among foreigner communities.
Earlier this week, a similar policy was adopted within the Seoul province (the Gyeonggi-do province surrounds Seoul), but was retracted on Wednesday because of international opposition on the basis of its discriminatory nature.
The test itself was fine and the testing site was well-run. I had seen other stories about very long wait-times and unpleasant experiences on Reddit groups for other English teachers in Korea. But my experience was mostly positive.
As far as I’ve heard, the governor is a bit of a ‘populist’ type figure, and that would indeed explain this kind of directive.
Even though, of course, the policy is incredibly discriminatory and probably grossly counter-productive, I didn’t feel too put-out by it.
I moved to Korea right as covid started to first spike in Wuhan, in January 2020. I remember listening to the story on the radio on the way to the airport. The entirety of my covid-experience has taken place in a country that has been extremely pro-active about fighting the virus. I’ve been so thankful for that. I’m not an epidemiological expert, but from the perspective of someone living in Korea, covid seems so ‘manageable’. The ‘sacrifices’ I’ve had to make are tiny in the grand scheme of things. I, and everyone around me, wear a mask constantly. When I go cycling, I wear a mask. I pass hundreds of other cyclists on the weekends, I’ve never seen one without a mask. Children all wear masks everywhere. People are cautious about gathering in large groups. Business have stayed open, but take simple precautions. For a couple of weeks in September, and a few weeks over Christmas, our school switched to online classes as the country’s restrictions increased. But those restrictions also eased relatively quickly. They were introduced quickly and they worked. Everyone follows them.
I know it’s a gross generalisation, but Korean society is quite ‘collective’/‘communal’. For example, one of the first culture shock moments I experienced here was the sharing of food. I used to hate sharing food. But here, people can go out and all eat from the same central dishes. Anyway, maybe this ‘collectivist’ spirit is important in fighting covid.
Or maybe it’s how efficient and developed a lot of its infrastructure is. Internet is great here, and so are the various ‘services’ that can only emerge in a well-connected, well-organised society. Home delivery is easy and predominant. You barely have to walk 100m from your apartment to find most things that you need. It’s easy to ‘quarantine’.
Or maybe it’s simply the masks. There was a story here during the last spike in cases (around Christmas). A Starbucks had about 20 (maybe 40) cases over a weekend. It turned out, though, that all those infected had been on the upper level of the store, working on their computers or studying. They had been in the store for a long time, eating, drinking coffee, etc., without masks. People who had just come in for a quick coffee, and even all the people working at the Starbucks, and wearing masks, were all fine.
It’s so hard for me to understand why people don’t adopt this very simple practice more wholeheartedly in many ‘Western’ countries. Even in my home country, Ireland, I learned recently that anyone under 13 years old, doesn’t have to wear a mask. I can’t understand that. I teach 4 and 5 year olds who have no problem wearing a mask for the 5 hours they’re with us in the mornings.
Maybe there’s more to the story than simply wearing masks and being generally compliant, but I keep racking my brains about it, and that’s all I really see when I look around. I could be missing something.
Anyway, I didn’t mind having to go for the test. Yes, I minded being singled out on a basis that wasn’t scientific or rational, but suspicion toward foreigners is a more general problem within Korean society.*
*That’s not to say that Korean people aren’t welcoming or hospitable. On the contrary, they remind me a lot of Irish people in that sense. And I love them to bits. It’s just that, if there is ever any reason to suspect ‘foreigners’ about something, people tend to jump on it quite quickly.