In 2013, when I was still a Korean language student in Seoul National University, I had to register my name with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Back then, there were reports of North Korea launching short-range missiles, causing a small panic among many international students.
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Thankfully, no actual war happened, and life generally resumed to normalcy.
Who knew seven years later, as a Singaporean studying and working in Seoul, I’d be doing the same – logging in with my Singpass, registering my necessary information with the ministry – but this time it was for a virus outbreak.
Current status of COVID-19 situation in South Korea
As of 2 March, South Korea has become the country with the most number of confirmed cases (4,200+) of COVID-19 other than China. The sudden increase in confirmed cases took place in Daegu, North Gyeongsang Province.
Health authorities in South Korea believed that Patient 31, a 61-year-old woman, had attended the services at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus located in Daegu, before transmitting the virus to at least 37 of the church-goers. Many had also pointed fingers at how she had refused the test, and her irresponsible and rash action has caused the skyrocketing of confirmed cases in South Korea. As of now, Korean authorities are still unclear as to how Patient 31 was initially infected with COVID-19.
Aside from that, it was also reported that patients from a psychiatric ward in Cheongdo county hospital were infected as some of the church followers had attended a funeral held within the same complex.
With the spike in cases, many countries, including Singapore, had put a ban on visitors from Cheongdo county as well as Daegu city from entering their borders. To prevent further spread and outbreak, Singapore announced that returning Singaporeans and long-term pass holders with recent travel history to the two designated areas will have to undergo two weeks of self-quarantine at home.
The Singapore Embassy in Seoul had also discouraged Singaporeans from travelling to these two places, telling us to register our names with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if we do.
Current atmosphere in South Korea and precautionary measures in place
The sudden and rapid rise in the number of cases had caused a panic in South Korea initially. Many daily necessities in supermarkets in different parts of the peninsula were sold out. And when I was doing my weekly grocery-shopping in the mart near my house, I even noticed that my favourite ramyeon (instant noodles) was out of stock. And as you might have expected, it’s almost impossible to get your hands on hygiene necessities such as masks.
Thankfully, since 27 February, the Korean government had made masks more accessible by selling them through 1,400 post offices nationwide. Each person was only allowed to buy at most five pieces and they were sold for around KRW1,000 (SGD1.15) per piece.
Other organisations had also stepped up in this aspect. For instance, my university had also organised mass orders of masks for students, setting a pre-order limit of 50 pieces per student.
Thankfully my Singaporean kiasi (fear of death) attitude had driven me to secure two month’s worth of masks on the internet when the first few cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in South Korea back in January, so I didn’t have to join the mad rush now.
In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, companies are encouraged to allow employees have flexible working hours and/or to work from home. If they have to head to the office, it is mandatory for them to wear a mask. Luckily for me, I was told that I would be working from home for the time being, until the situation improves.
Schools were also told to postpone the start of their new semester by two weeks, to the dismay of many international students. Some had to reschedule their flight while others also had to struggle to make the decision to a break in the new semester.
The alarming increase in confirmed cases recently had affected my life by quite a fair bit. Online deliveries are taking longer to arrive, many social meet-ups were cancelled because we were recommended not to head outside. But what had probably affected me more negatively was the weird stares I get from Koreans when I spoke Mandarin to my family during phone calls – something that I had never experienced before in my seven years here.
Is it safe to visit Seoul during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Although the COVID-19 outbreak is most heated in Daegu city and Cheongdo county, tourism has been impacted in Seoul.
Air tickets to Seoul are currently at all-time low prices and tourist attractions here are practically empty. This description may make it sound like the best timing to visit Seoul, which is usually bustling everywhere.
However, if I were to give my two cents’ worth on whether I’d advise my friends to visit Seoul or not, I’d recommend that you postpone your travel plans for now.
As far as I know, many events in Seoul that usually take place in the Spring season have already been postponed or cancelled. For K-pop fans who are planning trips here, you’ll be disappointed to know that music shows are now recorded without any audience, fan-meetings and concerts have also been cancelled by the agencies. In other words, there will be barely any chance for you to meet your favourite K-pop idols.
On top of these, like I’ve mentioned, there are some locals who gave me the odd eye when they heard me speak in Mandarin. I’ve also seen posts by expat groups on Facebook, sharing the unpleasant incidents they experienced because they “looked” Chinese or because they’re foreigners. Your experience as a tourist in Seoul may not be as pleasant as the last time you visited.
What’s more, in the case that you really fall ill in Seoul, medical cost and language barrier will definitely make the ordeal more trying.
However, if you’re still intending to take the chance and travel to Seoul, there are a few advice I’d give.
I would recommend downloading the ‘Emergency Ready App’. It is a English-based mobile application that allows you to get notifications from the Korea government, updating you on the location of the latest confirmed COVID-19 cases so you can stay on the loop in real time. You can also set the location to specific regions (you’re visiting) so that you know about the latest development around that area.
Also, since it’s difficult to find any hygiene items in shops here, it’ll be best if you prepare your own masks and hand sanitisers – don’t expect to stock up in Seoul.
Above all, just as you should be wherever you may be, practise good hygiene by washing your hands frequently and avoid touching your face unnecessarily and with dirty hands.
Nobody can be sure how long it is going to take before the COVID-19 situation dies down in South Korea, but many of us are expecting the number of cases to continue to rise in the weeks to come.
Hopefully, with the sharing of knowledge and adopting of good practices and measures – and perhaps with a stroke of luck – we’ll be able to get the condition under control soon. But till then, you can expect me to be at home, catching up on shows on Netflix during my free time.