As the coronavirus spread, South Korea quickly became one of the first nations to register thousands of cases — more than 7,000 — and became an early epicenter.
But the World Health Organization has praised the government’s actions to contain the virus, which include testing 15,000 people a day free of charge and implementing drive-through testing stations. The country’s health minister told CNN on Monday that he’s cautiously hoping that they have surpassed the “peak” number of infections.
How did people on the ground experience these government measures?
Alice Evans, a 26-year-old British woman and marketing professional living in Seoul, shared her experience of the rollout of government measures, what it has been like to see large parts of the city temporarily shut down, and what tips she has for those about to head into the onset of the spread in other countries. (Evans’ answers have been edited for clarity.)
Tell me about how you experienced the spread of the virus and how the government handled the situation.
Alice Evans: We're all given this massive transparent outlook on it. There is a website that runs live in three languages: The number of cases, the number of suspected cases, and the number of deaths, where they are, who they are. They have all this information on there. We literally get an alert every single day, as in a proper government emergency alert: “If you've been to this building in this neighborhood and interacting with this person, please visit us today.”
I think that the initiative that has been taken here and the amount of information we're being given has been exactly right. There has been little to no panic here.
So I do think they've managed to respond well, to tell people what they need to hear, and getting the job done.
How did the virus impact your life?
It started affecting my life I think two weeks ago now, when suddenly, everything went from “business as normal” to “you're about to wear a mask.” I work for a marketing company and [our client is] a large telecommunications company. Suddenly, that company canceled all business trips. And someone in my office facility was found to have the virus. So I was sent to work from home. At that moment, it kicked in for everyone: Our lives for the next foreseeable future were going to be very, very boring. I think it's really hard to describe it. It's just boring.
Our foreseeable future is really, you know, minimal interaction with other people. We’re not informed [of that] explicitly, but the shutting down of all the public places and public gathering, including churches, that's a big thing here. Our lives became very much boring.
One of the most high-profile cancellations in Korea was [BTS] canceled their Seoul concert. They expected a lot of people to travel for them, which is true. People will.
Every single week our company reviews [the situation]. I know that a lot of public spaces kind of shut down for one week and everything was disinfected. So there are a lot more cafés opening up again and restaurants are opening up. So people are going outside again.
It's hard to say [when things will be normal again] because the government is holding everything very close to their chest. I don't think they want to give any kind of deadline or any kind of linear timeline for this because it could be false information. So we're actually very much in the dark about when any of this ends.
What’s something you’ve experienced during this time that you didn’t expect?
One of the main changes that I experienced is really just a shift in mental health. A lot of us in the initial stages felt really depressed and gloomy, because we didn't really understand [what was going on] and it just felt like everything was being taken away from us. So like yeah, look out for yourself.
I was very lucky to have a very, very good friend in the UK who called me every other day just to be like: “Tell me how you're feeling. Talk about it. Say it out loud.” I think I really need to do that because there's no point complaining to everyone here because we're all going through the same thing.
So talk about it. Even if it's to your dog or your mom.
Any advice you have for folks heading into this?
One thing we try to do is just to be less selfish. And that sounds really silly, but it could have been really easy for me — when they canceled my trip home to see my parents, when they canceled my concert — to just be like, “I hate this! Nihilism rules!” I think at the end of the day, you've just got to adopt that attitude [of being less selfish].
I think we all need to see the bigger picture. Like, collectively, if you fire each other up into ignoring what are actually very important initiatives, it's not gonna get better very quickly.
I think just do what they tell you and be smart about it. It sounds stupid when I say it out loud, but it's just not what I'm witnessing from my friends at home.
You know, I'm a young woman who's in relatively standard health. But there are people who have higher risk and a lot of the measures are in place to protect elderly people, people with underlying health illnesses. Of course, it will probably be fine for me, but like, you have to see the big picture and think about how you can help.