Not long ago I wrote about my experience when I traveled to China during the very beginnings of the Coronavirus outbreak. I was there when the panic set in.
Now I'm back in South Korea, only to be going through a second experience with an outbreak of this mysterious flu like virus that has the world on edge.
How it began
Things in Korea were relatively normal for three weeks after China was reporting mass infections and casualties of the highly contagious Coronavirus.
Cases sporadically popped up throughout Korea. So sporadically, that for the first three weeks that COVID-19 was going global, South Korea was at the lower end of the spectrum of it's spread. Most cases seemed to come from Chinese citizens returning to Korea, where they live and work, from the Lunar New Year holiday (Chinese are the largest foreign population in Korea).
The outbreak that has gripped South Korea started with a woman who has been dubbed, "Patient 31." She was the 31st Coronavirus case in Korea.
"Patient 31" is a devout member of a well known, and widely disliked, church that many other churches have described as a cult. Patient 31's Shincheonji, or 신천지 in Korean, location in Daegu (Korea's 4th largest city) is believed to have 1,000 or more members. Shincheonji claims to have 290,000 members world wide but no official has verified such a claim.
Patient 31 interacted with many of the members of the church. From there, the amount of cases in Korea went wild as members of the church became infected and tried to hide the fact they were infected causing the worlds worst outbreak of COVID-19 outside of China.
What Its Been Like
A lot has been going on in Daegu regarding the outbreak and this secretive church. Somethings I've seen are long lines for masks at department stores in the city. This quickly lead to a mask shortage.
The mask shortages have extended to most everywhere else in Korea.
Since the outbreak in Daegu, other regions of Korea have seen cases popping up more regularly.
"When MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) and the seasonal flu hit, I never thought it was that serious. They were serious but they had vaccines and I thought they weren't much of a real problem," say Kyungseong, a resident of Busan, South Korea. "But this time, with this Coronavirus, it is happening nearby and the number of patients are increasing dramatically. So, I started wearing a mask and bringing some disinfectant in my bag even though those kinds of things bother me," she adds.
This has led to people stocking up on supplies at department and grocery stores around the country. Images of empty shelves from department stores around Korea have hit the internet.
Jobs in Korea have asked employees to stay home, and or, work from home as extra precaution to prevent the further spread of the virus.
"It's affecting my job...So instead of face to face meetings like normal, we are having to have meetings over the phone...It's already difficult to communicate between Korean contractors and American clients in Korea but the COVID-19 situation is making it more difficult," says Jason, a construction project engineer in Busan, South Korea.
Foreign born English teachers are currently in limbo. Ones that just arrived are having to hunker down before their working abroad experience begins. Those that have been in Korea are waiting until they have to go back to work. Some are getting paid through it all, others are having to wait for their paychecks since they're not working.
Others are opting to ditch their contracts and return home to countries presumably less effected.
Even worse, some have lost their jobs because their school couldn't afford to remain in operation.
As case numbers continue to increase, countries have implemented restrictions on travelers coming from Korea. The number increases several times a day and as of the publishing of this post, stands at 100 countries either outright banning travelers, putting increased restrictions on travelers, and or, implementing mandatory quarantine for travelers coming from Korea.
Professional athletic leagues are expecting to play without fans for the foreseeable future until COVID-19 can be contained by Korean authorities.
Public schools have delayed the start of their school year for two weeks as Korea works to contain the spread of the the virus and keep its students safe. By the time they're expected to open on March 22nd, private schools will have mostly been closed for a month.
Universities remained closed around Korea. Foreign exchange students are having their exchange programs cancelled and are being forced to find other options. Many that have already arrived in Korea have been told to return home.
"After the disastrous Corona19 outbreak began, my troop commander banned all of the soldiers in the base from leaving. I understand why this kind of order was made. To keep everyone safe. Now, we are all stuck in this confined area, hoping this catastrophe will end soon," says a Korean friend who wished to remain anonymous.
The combined United States of America and Republic of Korea Forces currently have seen 34 cases of the virus throughout Korea. Seven USFK (United States Forces Korea) employees have also become infected.
Korea's capital, Seoul, a city of 10.5 million people in the city confines, and 20 million people in the greater metropolitan area, has seen a noticeable reduction in everyday activity.
City Hall, which is known for travelers, commuters, and protesters stands mostly empty as Korea Center of Disease Control (KCDC) banners display how to help reduce the spread of the Coronavirus.
Down the street just beyond City Hall, a digital billboard displays a message about what to do if you have symptoms of COVID-19. A few commuters go about their day wearing masks.
In Gangnam, a district of Seoul known for shopping, eating, and partying made famous by Psy's global hit, "Gangnam Style," sparse crowds carry on with their day wearing masks.
The regularly packed metro station, shops and busy streets seem a thing of the past as travelers avoid Korea and Koreans avoid being in crowded areas as much as possible.
Jason added, "I wouldn't say we are scared to go out, but we are just taking preventative measures and minimizing our chances of contracting the virus."
"I often check the news about the Coronavirus. Especially since I'm an outgoing person. But, this is really serious, so I'm trying to endure because I really want to go out," says Kyungseong.
The virus shows no signs of slowing down in Korea. The concern is palpable, being mostly noticeable on the streets of Seoul, a city that is always on the move. For the time being, it seems it's resting. When it wakes back up again, has yet to be seen.