In some ways, this dark time is bringing out our better sides, even while we physically isolate ourselves - GulfToday

In some ways, this dark time is bringing out our better sides, even while we physically isolate ourselves

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Picture used for illustrative purpose only.

Jinwon Kim, Jaehyung Kim, The Independent

We are Korean sociologists working in different continents – one in Seoul, in South Korea, and the other in New York City, in the United States. We’ve each paid careful attention to Covid-19 from the beginning of its spread in Korea since the first case was confirmed on January 20. In Korea, fortunately, the number of confirmed cases has declined since February 29, with increasing testing and a low fatality rate, without any lockdowns, while many countries in Europe and North America have been struggling.

Because of this, governments and global media began paying attention to Korea’s approach to the virus to see what they could learn from the Korean case in order to prepare for an outbreak in their own country. As sociologists, what we find interesting during this dark time is how we have developed different coping mechanisms and responses: individual efforts versus systemic or collective efforts.

In New York City, New Yorkers have run to grocery stores and stocked up on frozen and canned foods, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizers. Oh, don’t forget toilet paper! Meanwhile, in Seoul, people are, overall, more calm and appear to be living their lives as usual — even in Daegu, the epicenter of the outbreak in Korea. Instead of panic-buying, people wait patiently in long lines to buy facial masks, which are now distributed by the government at some places.

In the US, President Trump announced banned foreign nationals who had travelled to China from entering the country on January 31. The government and health officials as well as the media have informed the public that people die more from seasonal flu, and emphasized individual actions, particularly washing hands.

Both of us lived in the United States for many years, but never understood the “public” side of the government when it comes to the health system. We all agree that handwashing is the most critical way to prevent yourself from the infection, but this is done by individuals. Why not test more and isolate and quarantine people to contain the virus from an early stage? Simply, what has the government really done since January?

When the outbreak first appeared in Korea, the American public was largely disinterested. Many probably assumed that Covid-19 was only an Asian problem. Americans seemed to think that they were safe because they were far away. Then, of course, in the following days it was all over the media; first, the outbreak at a nursing home in Washington, then the community spread in New Rochelle, New York, and the rapidly rising death toll in Italy. This “Asian” disease finally became real for many Americans and Europeans. Europe was no longer safe, nor was North America. The media began to emphasize social distancing – the best way to protect yourself, loved ones, and many others. This coincides with several states’ executive orders to deal with the virus, including school and business closures.

Unlike the United States, Korea has restricted the entry of travelers only from Hubei Province, the epicenter of the virus in China, and those who have visited the region in the past 14 days. They have resisted growing calls to ban travel from all of China. Even though over 73 per cent of cases have are in Daegu or have a connection to the region, lockdowns have not been planned. Instead, the Korean government brought in a clear agenda to track the spread of the virus: aggressive testing, tracking the paths of people who were diagnosed with Covid-19, transparency, and twice-daily press conferences by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

People have claimed that what we do in Korea would not work in other countries, because our strategy requires so much individual sacrifice and manpower, such as medical staff, including public health doctors; military doctors and nurses; and government officials. Perhaps it’s true that this is a cultural difference. Or perhaps American officials in charge should change their behaviour, and will then see the public react differently.

In some ways, this dark time is bringing out our better sides, even while we physically isolate ourselves. That’s something which is common to both the east and the west.

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