Armed with a plastic baggie of Lysol wipes, 50 pairs of nitrile gloves, and a travel-sized bottle of antiseptic spray, Sam Choi made his way to his airplane seat, careful to maintain a healthy distance from people around him. He saw other passengers in hazmat suits and what looked like diving goggles, and tried to take comfort in the fact that he, at least, had double-masked himself. The flight from JFK to Incheon International Airport would take 14 hours, and nobody was taking any chances.
Choi, 23, who arrived in Seoul at the end of last month, is one of the many Koreans who have left New York for the relative safety of their homes in South Korea, which is widely regarded as the paragon of efficient national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some, including students who were suddenly told to vacate their dormitories, fled the city because they had no other choice. Others, like Choi, elected to leave as the situation in New York City steadily worsened—often after a great deal of conflict and deliberation. Since March 29, the number of international arrivals has reached around 2,400 a day, according to Seoul city officials.
The decision to return home was “a complete 180” for Choi. He is finishing his junior year at Columbia University, and originally had planned to stick it out in Manhattan until the end of the semester. But, toward the end of March, a confluence of factors—including his grandmother’s death, the rising spate of xenophobia and hate crimes toward Asian people in the U.S., and the college’s announcement that all classes would be graded on a pass/fail system—changed his mind. On top of that, New York City was quickly becoming the new global epicenter of the pandemic.
He felt a sense of inevitability. “If I stayed, it wasn’t a matter of if I’ll get it, but when,” Choi said. He bought a one-way ticket for a flight departing in two days, paying twice the amount he would normally pay—for a round trip ticket. It would be worth it, he reasoned. He knew that if he were to get sick, he would be able to get tested and cared for in Korea.
A Controlled Situation
Though the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in South Korea was announced on January 20, the number of cases spiked in mid-February. Many attribute the sudden increase to a “superspreader” from the Shincheonji Church, widely regarded as a cult, who infected other worshippers during a service in Daegu, a major city southeast of Seoul.
With rapid and extensive testing, as well as stringent contact tracing and quarantine measures, South Korea was able to quickly stem the spread. As of April 15, there were 10,591 confirmed cases and 225 deaths nationwide, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, the death toll in New York City alone recently surpassed 11,500.
Jiyoon Park, 24, flew back to Seoul from New York last week after she grew increasingly concerned about the feasibility of obtaining necessities—especially when she heard about the recent strike by Amazon workers, and when going to the grocery store started to seem like a hazardous mission.
Park was struck by how different the situations in the two cities are. When she landed at Incheon International Airport, she went through a temperature check, handed in a health survey, and was instructed by officials to download a “Self-quarantine Safety Protection” app. For 14 days, all Korean residents arriving in the country are required to log their symptoms on the app, which also tracks their phone location to ensure they remain at home. Those who violate their self-quarantine risk imprisonment of up to a year in jail or a fine of 10 million won, approximately $8,000 USD. Foreigners—like three Vietnamese students who left their phones at home to go to a park during their quarantine—risk deportation.
After collecting her luggage, Park went directly to the Jamsil Sports Stadium, where the 1988 Summer Olympics were held, to get tested for Covid-19, as mandated by the government. On April 4, the Seoul city government announced that the stadium would be used as a designated walk-through testing center for all residents who arrive in the country. The goal, spokesmen said, was to stop the spread of secondary infections from imported cases.
Park was impressed by how everything seemed to be under control in South Korea, especially when compared to the underlying hysteria she sensed in New York. There, she said, “people don’t know when it’s going to end, people are dreading this whole situation without having an answer.”
Fortunately for Park, the advertising company she works at has a flexible work from home policy, so working from Seoul proved not to be a huge issue. Some, however, have been less lucky. Sophie Rhee, 25, said that the main reason she stayed in New York, despite strengthening fears, was because of work. “I didn’t want to raise any red flags,” said Rhee, who works at a law firm.
Fears of Imported Cases
The vast number of Koreans flying back home has alarmed some residents, some going so far as to argue that people who have chosen to live or study overseas should stay there. As of April 15, South Korea had 955 imported cases, nearly half of which are from the U.S., per the KCDC. Choi and Park both understand the fears, though Choi finds it “disheartening,” especially since he was born and raised in Korea, and spent two years serving in the military. “This has brought up the ugly side of the rhetoric about yoohakseng,” he said, using the Korean word for students who study overseas.
Aware that traveling can spread the virus, Choi considered himself positive and acted as such until his test results came back negative. He said he didn’t even hug his parents, whom he hadn’t seen in a year, until 14 days after his arrival.
Choi’s mandatory self-quarantine is now over, but he doesn’t plan on going out much. “Going from hardcore social distancing in New York City to here, where restaurants are still open and people are going to bars, scares me,” he said. “I’m not going out.”