No Panic Here: I Am in South Korea Watching the Coronavirus Spread.

February 29, 2020 Topic: Health Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: South KoreaNorth KoreaCoronavirusHealthEconomics

No Panic Here: I Am in South Korea Watching the Coronavirus Spread.

The good news is that there is no panic. The western media coverage of this has flirted with sensationalism, talking about corona as ‘spiraling’ or being ‘out of control.’ This is unfair.


South Korea now has the unhappy distinction of being the country with the worst novel corona outbreak in the world after China. The national response has been fascinating to watch. It took awhile for the government to take COVID-19 as seriously as it should have, and the opposition press has been relentless in its criticism. But there is now a widespread social earnestness in the response. You can even get drive-through tested for symptoms for free (seriously), which is a fairly astonishing bureaucratic achievement for a large-ish country of fifty-three million people.

Americans might want to pay attention, as South Korea is a nice example of a serious, nationwide response to a major health event without a lot of panic or politics. There is nothing here, for example, like U.S. President Donald Trump’s bizarre attempt to blame the Democrats and media for corona. And what is happening here is a model for what the United States might contemplate if corona really starts to spread back home.


The heaviest emphasis now is on what epidemiologists refer to as ‘social distancing.’ This means simply that people should keep their distance from each other. This makes any sort of gathering automatically suspect. And as the virus spreads, the cessation of meetings, events, and congregations has become more and more thorough.

Here are just a few examples, almost all of which have been voluntary. Religious services have effectively ceased. Catholic churches have taken to saying mass over the internet. Schools are universally closed. My children’s kindergarten closed completely last week and will close again this week. My wife and I are now planning on this lasting through the whole month of March.

Grade school and college students have so far had it lucky. The Korean spring semester does not normally begin until March. But now that March is here, these schools are planning on opening in the middle of the month instead. And in fact, this week school administrators across the country will meet to decide if school should start in April. Given that the number of corona cases is jumping few hundred every day now, I have little doubt school will be postponed till April. Indeed, if they started it on March 16 as originally planned, I wonder how many people – including instructors – would even come.

Just about any outdoor congregation is now ended. Concerts have canceled. Political protests, which are very common in South Korea, have all but stopped. Movie theaters are empty, and some are simply closing until further notice. A friend and I were going to run a few 10K races this spring. This has been delayed, even though transmission seems to occur mostly in closed spaces. Even the jungle gym for children and health club facilities in my apartment complex have closed. In the eleven years, I have lived in Busan, that has never happened. It is rather startling. There is not much left to do. My family and I are spending most of our time at home. We are ordering food via the internet and spending too much time watching TV. As an academic, I have the flexibility to work at home, but there has been a lot of contention about families that cannot keep their kids at home when the parents must still go to work.

If you do go outside, it is remarkably quiet. I live near a major university. There are all sorts of shops and vendors near our apartment and usually an active street life. About half the shops near our place seem closed now, and there is very little foot traffic. Employees in those shops which are still open are universally masked. I increasingly wonder if the store shutdowns are simply because employees will not come to work. At my own university, almost no one comes to work now except required support staff, and naturally, they are masked too. Public transportation – buses and the subway - is still running, but they too are sparsely used, and again everyone is masked. Even taxis seem fewer on the streets.

If you do go to building or institution outside your home, you are immediately confronted by hand-sanitizer at every door. This used to be voluntary, but institutions are starting to mandate it. My university, for example, now requires one to wear a mask at all times in its buildings. Even my apartment complex has put hand-sanitizer in the elevator now.

In short, there is a remarkable social slow-down all around. People are doing less, moving less, interacting less, going to places less. It is extraordinary to watch, as has been the increasingly deep penetration of counter-measures into every crevice of life. I have never seen hand-cleanser in an elevator before.

The good news is that there is no panic. The western media coverage of this has flirted with sensationalism, talking about corona as ‘spiraling’ or being ‘out of control.’ This is unfair. The virus is indeed spreading, but mostly because South Korea is liberal state which cannot simply throw sick people in concentration camps as I have no doubt North Korea will do. The popular discipline of the response has been quite admirable actually.

Nor is there panic buying. When you do go to the grocery store, there is still lots to find. The only mild shortage has been face-masks, and the government has worked pretty hard on that in the last week.

This virus will likely make it to the U.S. Americans should think about the sorts of tightening social distancing measures pursued here. What I have called a ‘social slow-down’ need not mean a panic or economic recession, but it does mean planning for something more substantial than the Trump administration has admitted to date.

Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.