January 13th, I landed in Chicago to start the second semester of my exchange program. Back then, I did not know that the freezing weather with snowfall would be the most peaceful time of my semester in the United States.
Starting from early February, Chinese students on campus were starting to raise their concerns about their families in China. At that point, South Korea had only 30 cases of COVID-19 which was relatively negligible. However, from the end of February, the situation was becoming problematic in Korea as the confirmed cases rose dramatically to 3000s in Daegu. I was concerned about my family and friends in Korea. However, at that time, no one expected that this would be a concern in the United States as well.
Starting from March, COVID-19 cases were slowly spreading in the United States. The total confirmed cases were less than 100 before March, but starting from March 2nd, there were around 100 more cases every day. The situation was especially distressing in California, Washington, and New York. Since the COVID-19 was spreading throughout the United States, many Chinese and Korean students began to feel anxious, and bought masks and hand sanitizers to prepare for a surge. However, American students or students from other countries were not worried at all.
Then, in the middle of March, the situation in the US was getting extremely intense. Many of the schools and universities in the US announced that they would offer remote learning courses instead of in-person classes. Although the situation has gotten more serious, it seemed like not many people were aware of it. I was one of the very few people wearing face masks in Chicago and even in the train, no one wore a mask. When I took an Uber with the mask on, the driver asked me “Are you sick? Why are you wearing a mask?” Then, I had to explain that I was not sick but wore a mask to protect myself.
A critical problem was that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced misleading information. The CDC announced that coronavirus only harms old people and people with underlying illness. Also, they said that the face masks do not provide protection and they are only needed to those who are already infected. These announcements did not inform the situation accurately, and as a result, people were not aware of the seriousness. They thought that coronavirus is insignificant because the fatality rate was less than that of flu.
A few days later when the situation got dramatically worse, the school canceled the in-person classes for the whole semester and turned everything to online. The school also urged all students to leave campus and go back home. It was a sudden and unexpected news to me. More importantly, going back home was not an easy process. I never imagined how difficult it would be to go back home.
Around the time I was trying to book a flight back to Korea, there were almost no tickets left for immediate flights and they were extremely expensive. Flight from Chicago was not available until April, so I decided to fly to Los Angeles first and take a direct flight from LA to Korea. Also, at that time, there was a possibility of a lockdown between states, so I went to LA one week before my flight and stayed in a hotel for a week.
Finally on March 28th, I got on a plane for my way back home. I was lucky enough to get tickets in late March because some other students could not get tickets until April. Also, some Chinese students could not even go back home because their flights were canceled or they chose to stay in the US to avoid quarantine for 4 weeks. When I was in the plane, I wore the mask the whole time, did not eat anything, and did not go to the bathroom for 13 hours and 30 minutes.
After I safely landed in Korea, I felt relieved. Also, I was able to observe how well organized the quarantine system was. In the airport, there was a long line to check each person’s temperature and everyone had to download a “self-diagnosis” smartphone application. When I got back home, I had to complete a self-diagnosis app every day during my self-quarantine for 2 weeks. If I missed the self-diagnosis, I got a call from the health center to check my condition. Also, I received a counseling call to check if I was mentally healthy as well. Furthermore, a huge box filled with food and sanitary kit including masks, sanitizers and preventative measures manuals were delivered to my house, and even a letter of encouragement was sent with them. I also got a free testing for coronavirus in the health center. Through this experience, I was able to see how well prepared Korea was for the quarantine system and how much care and effort they put in to prevent spread from travelers entering Korea.
Currently, the number of confirmed cases in Korea has decreased significantly. As I experienced the coronavirus outbreak in two different countries, I was able to see how two countries managed the situation differently. Korea has been dealing with this outbreak very well compared to other countries. Mass testing including drive-thru test and contact tracing have been very effective in preventing more spread. As the government shared information about confirmed cases and messaged the trace of infected people, people could check infected locations. Also, Korean citizens were well aware of the situation and acted appropriately. Although the Korean government did not announce official lockdown, Korean citizens practiced social distancing responsibly and everyone protected themselves from each other by wearing masks. Also, while other countries face a scarcity of face masks, giving out 2 masks per week in local stores and providing up-to-date information about the number and type of face masks available has been a very effective solution.
Just in a month, the tables have been turned. In February, I was the one who was worried about my family and friends in Korea. However, just after a month, my family was terribly worried that I was in the US and my friends texted me if I was fine in the US. I still remember how desperate I wanted to come to Korea at that time. The reversal happened because Korea has been successfully controlling coronavirus with an appropriate infrastructure and medical care system. Also, all Korean citizens have been remarkably supportive of each other and cooperative. I personally feel very proud about how Koreans are dealing with COVID-19. I hope that other countries learn lessons from Korea’s example and apply those methods so that their situations get better as well.