How Korea is dealing with Coronavirus

As of 12 o’clock today, 25 July, South Korea has had 298 deaths from Coronavirus, compared to 45,677 in the UK, and it’s been interesting to see how they’re dealing with the pandemic and how it differs from the way the UK is dealing with it.

Quarantine is taken very seriously here – you’re not allowed to leave the airport until you can prove that you have accommodation sorted for your 14-day isolation period. The Korean army is at the airport, processing everyone, installing the quarantining app on everyone’s phone, calling your named contact in Korea to make sure they exist, and checking up on your accommodation. Once they’re satisfied that you have somewhere to go, you are escorted to a taxi – no public transport allowed – to be taken to a testing centre and then on to your accommodation.

Once you get to your quarantine accommodation you’re not allowed to leave the room, and the quarantine officer will visit you and will also phone you up occasionally to make sure you’re at home and haven’t sneaked out and left your phone behind. Your test result is texted to you within 24 hours – not sure what happens if you test positive as we were both negative.

The quarantine app will remind you twice a day that you have to fill in your details and confirm that you’re not ill –

and you have to check your temperature on a little sticker that you have to wear all the time –

… rather like a mood ring.

Then, once you’re out of quarantine and into normal life, the three important things are –

  • wearing a mask
  • checking your temperature
  • cleanliness

Suprisingly, for someone who’s just come from the UK, there’s no insistence on social distancing. Restaurant tables are cheek by jowl –

– and obviously nobody’s wearing a mask when they’re eating.

And the underground is rammed –

but as long as you wear a mask, nobody’s worried.

You have your temperature taken when you go into a hotel, school, office, dental surgery, museum – in fact, pretty much everywhere apart from shops … and the bigger shops have a thermal imaging camera in the entrance scanning everyone. You also have to give your name and phone number whenever you have your temperature taken, so they can contact you if anyone there tests positive for the virus in the near future.

Some precautions are a little over the top –

but on the whole it’s very sensible.

Keeping everything clean and germ-free is paramount too. I reckon there’s enough hand gel in this country to fill Lake Baikal several times over; it’s on offer in every subway station, shop, museum, hotel, restaurant, royal palace etc etc.

There are cleaners on the subway trains and in the stations, sweeping and polishing, and there are UV lights disinfecting the handrails of the escalators –

so that we can clutch them with confidence on our descent into the sanitised bowels of Seoul.

But more than anything else, people are being sensible here and they’re following the rules. Nobody’s kicking off about having to wear a mask, but equally nobody’s crossing the road or jumping into a hedge to avoid other people, and I find that very reassuring.

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What do I have in common with President Trump?

Week two of quarantine, and I’ve been passing the time by getting to grips with all things Korean – or more specifically, with Korean food and the language.

I do love a country that takes its food so seriously that it provides written instructions on how to eat certain dishes. I first came across this in Japan, where the instructions for eating braised eels ran to two sides of A4 paper, with added diagrams for clarity. So when I grasped the culinary nettle and asked for Bibimbap for dinner on Korean Air, I was delighted to be given a set of instructions on how to eat it –

This is definitely a country that takes its food seriously, I thought with approval.

But quarantining in an Airbnb and not being allowed to leave to go shopping has presented certain problems, only resolved by looking at the pictures on a Korean supermarket website and then asking a Korean colleague to place an order for what I thought the particular items might be. This has resulted in a lot of fruit and vegetables on the menu, because they’re easy to recognise in a photo, whilst jars and packets could have absolutely anything inside them.

We chomped our way through a plant-based diet for a few days, but then I found a food delivery app and suddenly mealtimes got a lot more exciting –

And then we ordered our first Korean meal –

Beautifully packaged and thoughtfully put together, there was a corkscrew provided with the wine, and a little pink plastic knife to cut through the plastic lids of the hot containers and a disposable glove for hygenic serving.

On the right are two Korean pancakes – one with prawns and chives, and the other with bacon and eggs. They seem to be made of batter with added grated potato. Front left is steamed egg – with more chives – a dish that I remember from Malaysia too. Behind the egg is bulgogi with rice cakes – bulgogi is very thinly sliced marinated meat, and the rice cakes are not at at all like our rice cakes. These are like mochi – very chewy – and served in a spicy sauce. The container of rice was topped with seaweed on one side and then with cream cheese and some unidentifiable yellow stuff on the other side … my least favourite part of the meal.

So – having got to grips with the food, it was time to move on to the language, and I have to announce that I have found a new hero: the inventor of the Korean alphabet, King Sejong.

My Learn Korean app tells me that ‘King Sejong and his Hall of Worthies invented Hangul, the most elegant and rational alphabet in the history of mankind in 1443.’

This is a 15th Century man with a 21st Century sense of hype. And if you do have to collaborate, how much better to have a Hall of Worthies than a Band of Merry Men ?

So, after two weeks of incarceration, I’ve mastered the 14 consonants, 10 vowels and 27 digraphs in Hangul, and I can tell you that …

… the setting I have selected on the left says ‘neng-su‘.

And …

this water bottle starts off mark-neun-sem-mul.

And the Trump connection?

It was a joke that Anthony was sent the other day –

 During a dull U.S Senate dinner, Melania Trump leaned over to chat with Vice President Pence. 

“I bought Donald a parrot for his birthday. That bird is so smart, Donald has already taught him to say over two hundred words!” 

“Very impressive,” said Mike Pence, “But, you do realize he just speaks the words. He doesn’t really understand what they all mean.” 

“Oh, I know”, replied Melania “But neither does the parrot.”

I read it and thought … well, that’s you and me, both, Donald.

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Life in quarantine: Gangnam-style

Well, not actually Gangnam, if you want to be pedantic. We’re in Seoul city centre, which is north of the river, and Gangnam is across the river from here, according to my map … but Jung-gu-style just doesn’t have the same ring to it, I’m afraid.

It was a stress-free journey from a deserted Heathrow –

on a half-empty flight, with some passengers taking the pandemic threat very seriously –

After a tedious 3-hour wait at quarantine in Seoul airport, while the British Council sorted out some quarantine accommodation for us, we were finally awarded our coveted Covid certificates –

– allowing us the privilege of two weeks’ quarantine in the city at our own expense. So we headed off in a taxi for our Covid test – no public transport allowed for quarantiners. The test centre had a row of chairs on the pavement outside – the sort of chairs I associate with school music lessons – where we gloved up and filled in the forms –

Then you’re escorted to a bio-hazard booth

where the test operator sticks his hands through rubber sleeves in the wall and rams a test swab up your nose and down your throat. I reared back in alarm the first time, and had to go through the painful nose process a second time.

Finally, our patient taxi driver took us to our Airbnb, for our 15 days in total isolation, and we were finally able to remove our masks for the first time in days.

It’s a small studio apartment which is pretty well equipped with coffee maker, microwave, toaster, large TV etc. And being Korea, there are face creams, collagen masks, hair straighteners and all the other essentials for those of us lucky enough to be in the beauty capital of the world. Just what I’ll need to beautify myself every morning in preparation for a day of isolation on the sofa –

Collagen mask … let the process begin!

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