Coronavirus in Korea: 23 Feb 2020

We interrupt your regularly scheduled BEEFcast with a special report from Agent McBurger, live from Seoul.

I’ve been in Korea for several weeks now but the situation here has become much more blogworthy of late with the massive spike in COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) cases we’ve seen in the last week.  A quick recap: There have been a small number of known cases here since the bug grabbed the world’s notice, but given the proximity to China the number has been surprisingly low – about thirty at this time last week – and all cases were easily traced to the source of the outbreak.

For the last few weeks I’ve picked up on signs that things were amiss, more people wearing masks than usual, fewer people in typically crowded areas, even some party neighbourhoods like Sinchon shutting down earlier – some restaurants closing 2-3 hours before their posted closing times – because fewer people are out and about.

PSAs like this have been ubiquitous, especially on the subways, in grocery stores and on electronic billboards

Earlier this week the number jumped significantly, first from about thirty to about eighty, then there were dozens more reported a few times a day.  The number of infected individuals now stands at about 600. Most of the newly-infected are associated with a church in Daegu. Daegu is a few hours away, but is midway on the high-speed KTX rail line between Seoul and Busan, the first and second biggest cities in the country respectively, so there’s no question this new burst is going to impact both of the big two cities.

Reading the news from my tiny rented dorm room in Daeheung, impacts are already being seen – Samsung has temporarily halted production at a facility outside of Daegu, thousands have been quarantined in Daegu, big events have been cancelled (like a BTS concert), and many churches even here in Seoul have cancelled their services.  Pharmacies and corner stores are running out of face masks and even posting signs on their doors to let people know:

The Korean text roughly translates to “There are no masks.”

Personally I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of making a move, and up until today was looking at a few different options:

  • Flying to a nearby Asian country where the virus is currently unknown or not as prevalent, like the Philippines or Indonesia.
  • Heading into a rural Korean area (possibly an island) to avoid crowds.
  • Flying home to Canada.
  • Riding it out here.

I rejected the first option because entry protocols could potentially change between the time I buy my ticket and when my boots hit the ground – some countries are already involuntarily quarantining all arrivals from Korea (like Kazakhstan), while others are rejecting people arriving from Korea outright (like Israel).  I don’t want to end up in either situation.

The second option is appealing because I’ve got my camping gear with me and it’d be nice to spend some time out in the boonies, but if I’m in a rural area that only has easy access to one or two sources of food, and then those sources end up shut down because people get sick, along with shut down transportation options, I’ll have hosed myself.  I’m not ruling this out completely though, keeping it on the back burner…

The third option isn’t great because my self-quarantine options aren’t great back home, and with the gear I’ve got it’s too cold to head to the woods in most of the country right now.  It’s also less interesting than either other option, or holding down the fort.

If I stay here there’s great food (as long as places stay open), a solid health care system, fast internet, and passport stamp that will let me stay visa-free until July.

So I’m sticking it out here in Seoul for the time being, but I won’t be battening down the hatches and binging Netflix.  I intend on getting out and seeing how this affects the city while taking all necessary precautions to protect myself.  Today things feel almost-normal, and hopefully it stays that way.

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