Quarantined in South Korea

From the Midstory Studio, our team chats with policy analyst Heiwon Shin, currently in government-mandated self-quarantine in South Korea after returning home from her current residence in France. Get perspective on Europe's and South Korea's responses to the pandemic, including the specific and detailed measures South Korea has put in place for citizens to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. From twice daily temperature readings and government phone calls to "quarantine kits" with food, disposable thermometers and medical waste trash bags, South Korea's swift policies and efficient execution have dramatically slowed the spread.

“Intercultural dialogue is the best guarantee of a more peaceful, just and sustainable world. – Robert Alan Aurthur, American screenwriter

Browse by topic or read the transcript of our interview below.

Topics covered:
[01:05] Europe at the start of the outbreak
[02:45] South Korea’s response to the virus and how it compares to Europe’s
[03:38] South Korea’s & the U.S.’s differing responses to COVID-19
[04:43] South Korean government policies regarding COVID-19
[05:50] Getting tested in South Korea
[06:26] Government services and practices for South Korean citizens to mitigate COVID-19
[08:17] South Korean airport policies and practices
[09:45] SARS, MERS and their effect on South Korean policy & response today
[10:15] How South Korea enforces quarantine measures
[11:25] Cultural, social & systematic differences between the U.S. and South Korea
[15:20] The culture of wearing masks in Asia vs. the U.S.
[17:17] What we can learn from the South Korean response

Heiwon Shin: [Heiwon reads a thermometer.] Yeah, I’m 36.7. Okay, great. Celsius, obviously. [Heiwon’s phone rings. She answers it in Korean and gives her temperature to the government worker on the other end.]

Samuel Chang: We’re here today to continue the conversation on the coronavirus and hope that we can keep tabs on the situation happening globally. I’m joined here today with a former colleague of mine and she is across the globe in South Korea. She recently returned from Europe a week ago and is in quarantine in her home in South Korea, and wants to share a little about her experiences. Definitely a good opportunity for us to learn from one another globally, and I hope you’ll learn something with me today. Thank you so much for joining us today, Heiwon. 

HS: Thanks for having me, Sam. 

SC: You were in France and Spain, were you, just a month ago? 

HS: I was indeed in Spain about a month ago, visiting my friends, and came back to Paris where normally I live. With all the confinement measures and everything considered, I decided to come back to Seoul where my family was. 

SC: Yeah, so when did it get to a point where you decided, “I need to take action and I need to go home”? Was there something in the news that kind of, you know, stuck out to you and you basically decided to just come straight home to South Korea? 

HS: So in the beginning, I thought I would stick it out, however long that might be. But once the confinement measures came into place, which was about two to three weeks ago, it was pretty rough. I saw what was happening. You know, people don’t have hospital beds or even on the floor, you know, you see that happening in Italy, Spain and it looked like it was gonna happen in France as well, so that was not really reassuring. And just, I don’t know, mentally, this strict confinement was very difficult for me. 

SC: So that was like, all of a sudden, it kind of just came and the policies came after they decided to up their testing and the numbers increased—was that just all of a sudden that you saw a lot of these policies in place? 

HS: Well, the government said, “Okay we need to go in self-confinement,” but people were not following it, so that they—after two days or so, they put up a stricter confinement. 

SC: How does that differ with your home country? I mean you, you went back to Korea about a week ago and what did you see the difference there?

HS: I think things were more transparent. I think the government was taking it more seriously, probably because we went through SARS and MERS, and the public was obviously more conscious of it. For about two, maybe even three months we’ve been under emergency mode, whereas France, that’s, you know—after having seen hundreds of people die in Italy and Spain, I think that’s when people kind of started taking it seriously, because even until like three, four weeks ago,  the government was saying, “Well, it’s gonna be okay,” you know, so the whole society, they don’t really take it seriously. 

SC: It’s definitely interesting to see how different countries react to this situation. In some ways, we look at countries like Taiwan and South Korea as kind of role models in all of this. I don’t know if you have any thoughts of what things we perhaps didn’t handle very well in our own approach in the U.S.? 

HS: The biggest difference that I see between the U.S. and Korea is that in the U.S., I don’t see a system in place, whereas in Korea everything seems to, you know, function properly. There is a system in place it’s not just one person taking over, although we do—I think we see quite some strong leadership of the—what is the equivalent of CDC in Korea. I see transparency, it’s more science- and medicine-led, whereas I think in the U.S. it’s quite politicized. 

SC: I mean, you talked a little about South Korea’s preventive policies and now you’re—the policies are continuing to flatten the curve, as we see in that country. Can you talk about some of the things that you’ve experienced just with the government and how they’ve taken care of you as a citizen? 

HS: I think starting on the 22nd of March, everyone coming from the U.S. and Europe have to go into self-confinement for two weeks. On the plane, you have to fill in certain forms about where you were the past 21 days, you have any of these symptoms, and then another form for another institute about your symptoms for the past two weeks. And then, so based on that, they go through some other measures for me because I have seasonal allergies. I had to go to another booth and then they asked me some follow-up questions, checked my temperature, all of that. I didn’t have high fever, so I passed. If I did have high fever, I think I would have had to get tested on the spot. So I went back home after having, I guess, agreed to the form that I will be in quarantine for two weeks. My mom picked me up. We obviously didn’t hug. We had masks. Within three days, I had to go to the local health center where I got tested and got tested negative, and simultaneously, I got phone calls from the government and they check on me twice a day, asking my temperature, if I have any symptoms, and whatnot, if I have any questions or comments. Oh yeah, also, at the airport we have to download this mobile application where you have to do the same thing: write your temperature, if you have any symptoms, or anything you want to communicate. So, yeah. I have to do a daily update twice a day.

SC: And that goes directly to the government? 

HS: Yeah, it’s a government app. 

SC: Okay. 

HS: Yeah, I also received a quarantine kit. I thought it’d be a tiny little pouch with maybe a thermometer, but turned out to be a really big box full of food, water, like obviously masks, but also I was quite surprised by the medical waste trash bag. 

SC: Can you explain that for the people that are not familiar with the medical waste trash bags? 

HS: Okay. Well, first of all, in Korea we have a bit more strict recycling system, so every district has different types of—so if you have food waste, you have a particular bag that you have to buy. If you have normal waste, you have to buy that, and then if you have recyclables, you recycle and whatnot. But here, because I could have COVID-19, any waste that I produce must go into this medical waste treatment, where they will treat it differently compared to normal trash that people produce. It’s this gigantic orange bag with a symbol of medical waste. 

SC: You’re coming back on a flight back back to South Korea—when you got off the airplane, what was that scenario like? Was it very orderly? Was there a lot of panic? Was there a lot of—you know, what did that experience like for you? 

HS: Immediately, we saw that we had to line up. It was already a long line, so we lined up and people were like, okay, then this person was saying we have to download this application, and so it was more like, okay, and everyone just tried to download and solve the technical issues. 

SC: So everybody had to go through that process. There was no exception?

HS: No. [There wasn’t.]

SC: Yeah, I think the reason why I’m asking is because airports are having different policies in terms of the way that they’re able to take in these individuals and, you know, telling them to self-quarantine and those kind of things. And there’s a lot of policies that people were not following at the airports. I think that’s something that I see in East Asian countries specifically, that when this thing, you know, began spreading so rapidly, that was almost the first approach, was more strict policies at the airports, ensuring that every person coming in was held accountable and responsible for what they were doing. So, definitely in your own experience, that seems like it was the case: that there was no exception and that everybody was to go through the screening process and it was quite tight, and there was a very dedicated procedure for all of that. 

HS: Yeah, well I think it’s probably because we went through MERS recently, and obviously SARS about 20 years ago. With MERS, I think something almost around 40 people died and people were quite outraged from what I remember. 

SC: Yeah. 

HS: So that’s why we had an update in policies that led to the digital geo-localization of people that we often hear about on the news. [Heiwon’s phone dings.] Okay, well I need to take my temperature because the district health center calls me at around ten, normally. 

SC: So you actually get called from the center at a specific time every day to take your temperature? 

HS: The mobile application also reminds me. But yes. So yeah, there’s this disposable thermometer—it’s almost paper-based, I guess.

SC: That’s amazing! I mean, that they’re giving you all these kits and it’s almost in a timed fashion. They’re calling you, the government is, and actually I’d love for you to just like—you know, after you take your temperature, I’ll let you kind of take care of [that]—you’ll be doing a live temperature reading of yourself right now. 

HS: Yeah, you have to have it in for a minute. Apparently it’s made in the U.S.A. 

SC: That’s interesting. Yeah, I think what I was saying—you know, there is a different culture in the United States, and from where I’m from in the Midwest, certainly there’s a lot of challenges with information. You know, a lot of the challenges specifically with, you know, the way that we might feel connected with the rest of the world. I think we are, in some ways, more disconnected, not only with the world, but you know even the rest of this nation. And oftentimes we feel the most disconnected when it comes to severe issues like this. Just so that you’re aware, I mean I think we’re very proud of the state approach, Ohio specifically, and the governor’s approach, taking this issue extremely seriously. [Heiwon reads her temperature.] Hopefully you’re good. 

HS: Yeah, 36.7. 

SC: Okay, great. 

HS: Celsius, obviously. 

SC: [laughs] Yeah. That’s kind of why I wanted to chat with you a little bit: to help us be more connected with the world and to share those experiences with those people that are experiencing vastly different things in vastly different systems. There are very strict, kind of, stay-at-home policies in place right now; restaurants are closed, you know even in some parts of the United States, parks are being closed down because people are not respecting social distancing—they’re not really taking it seriously and not respecting the— 

[Heiwon’s phone rings.] [Heiwon answers in Korean.]

SC: Heiwon actually just stepped out because she just received a call from the government to measure her temperature. 

HS: Okay, I’m back. Yeah, it’s pretty quick because he calls twice a day. 

SC: Twice a day? 

HS: Yeah, nothing’s changing, so, you know, he just says, “What’s your temperature?” and I tell him the temperature. 

SC: Yeah, that to me is crazy—that you have someone from the government that’s checking up on you everyday and, you know, keeping tabs on your, you know, your health and things like that. That’s certainly not something that you would see stateside. 

HS: We’re a centralized country, as I mentioned, so the national government came up with the policy—how to deal with people who might be importing cases, because obviously the epidemic centers are Europe and U.S. at the moment, and so that’s why, for the people entering in from the 22nd of March, we all had to agree. So if you don’t agree, then you can’t come to the country, which is understandable because things are quite controlled in Korea, whereas, you know, we are the potential risks, so in order to protect the public safety… 

SC: And can you talk more about the level of transparency for the government and the culture that you mentioned? You know, I think [there are] the challenges of a diverse set of cultures in the United States, but, you know, what is the culture like in Korea? You’re saying that people are willing to essentially give up their own privacy because, in some ways, there’s transparency in their government? 

HS: No, I think it’s—specifically in this case, for COVID-19, it’s directly because of MERS, because we saw that transparency was an issue and that’s why we have a policy specifically for infectious diseases. 

SC: Yeah, and I think talking about the culture aspect of things…Recently, there’s been a lot of stigma specific to wearing masks and I know that, you know, I myself coming from Taiwan, knowing that in a lot of East Asian countries, because we’ve dealt with SARS and MERS before, there isn’t the same stigma to do with wearing masks. What is it like in Korea? You know, doES everybody wear masks—is that kind of a well-expected thing for everyone to be in the community and wearing masks? 

HS: With air pollution, wearing a mask is a natural thing for people to do these days. There’s obviously no judgment and people—everyone does it, so because everyone does it, it’s normal. 

SC: In the United States, even without that kind of initial, you know, policy in place to really save the masks for the frontline health care professionals, there is certainly a stigma for anybody to be walking in the streets wearing a mask, whereas if you go to South Korea or Japan or China, or Taiwan, that stigma doesn’t exist. And, in fact, you know, I myself walking in a store, you know, people will judge me, first of all because I’m Asian, and I’m wearing a mask. They think that, you know, either I’m deathly ill or, you know, there’s something wrong with me. 

HS: Obviously I haven’t been out on the streets, but from what I’ve heard, if you don’t wear a mask, then people would judge you and there’s the social pressure to wear a mask, obviously to protect yourself, but quite importantly to protect others because, as we have seen, particularly with COVID-19, the asymptomatic patients spread the disease. So yeah. This is not a normal political question where there might be multiple ways. I think when it comes to infectious diseases, there just are—it is what it is, maybe you might have a few different approaches, but I think the options are limited and, you know, you don’t necessarily have…

SC: I love that. I love that you say that the the options are limited, and in terms of the policies and the measures, I love when you say that because I think there’s so much debate here and there’s a lot of politics, you know, in the space, that I think when it comes down to “What can we do as a government to save lives?” I think that’s where you see Korea, Taiwan, Singapore step up and say, ”Hey, there are very specific, unquestionable, undoubtable policies that we can all adopt as a country, as one people, to ensure the safety of the public. And, you know, I think in America—again, it’s a different government system here, I mean, it’s very different in terms of statewide powers and federal powers—but certainly those are things that, I think, are tangible things that we can learn from different communities, at least learn from their approach when it comes to infectious diseases and pandemics—what ways that we can really improve in terms of our cultural and social approach to, you know, this issue, because a lot of it relies on the American public at the end of the day. A lot of it relies on our response and if we’re more educated, if we’re more aware, then I think we’ll also take the steps to ensure that these kind of policies are in place at an earlier time. I love that, when you say there’s limited options when it comes to these kind of problems and ways that we can have policies towards that. 

HS: Right, I guess we’re all learning, but the learning better happen. Because lives are at risk and it’s not like other policies where you experiment, and then see, oh, the sun can rise, or it does not rise. Well, based on your decision, people might die. 

SC: Today, we talked a little bit about about Korea’s policies in place and also your personal experience. Thank you so much for sharing that with us today. I think there was a lot there, and hopefully we can just learn from one another, from each other’s own experiences, and hope that the situation turns out for the better for both Korea and the United States. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today, Heiwon. 

HS: Thanks for having me. It’s a great pleasure. 

SC: Well, thank you again for joining us for this conversation. I hope you learned a little bit from her story and her experience. Certainly there’s a lot for us to learn from each other. Of course, as always, stay at home, stay human, and be safe. I’ll see you soon.


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