At midday on 29 September, South Korea reported 38 new cases of coronavirus in the previous 24-hour period. Since the pandemic began, the country (which has a population of 52 million) has registered a total of 23,699 cases and 407 deaths. A great deal has been said and written in the British media about South Korea’s success in controlling the virus, and I’m now experiencing the system first hand, as I’ve come to Korea for a holiday. I’m coming to the end of my compulsory two-week quarantine period … one more negative Covid test tomorrow and I will be free to travel with my Korean friends, taking care to respect the government’s social distancing rules. So now seems like a good time to reflect on some key elements of Korea’s success in terms of quarantine and testing.
Of the 38 cases recorded yesterday, 15 were identified through testing at ports, airports and quarantine facilities … in other words, the Korean authorities stopped 15 inbound Koreans and foreign nationals from carrying the disease into the community (and they have identified more than 3,000 Covid-positive travellers this year). On arrival almost everyone, regardless of their nationality and body temperature test result, goes into quarantine; Korean nationals and long-term residents can quarantine at home and people like me, with no long-term address in Korea, are placed in a government quarantine facility. I was brought to the Hotel Marina Bay, about 20 minutes’ drive from the capital Seoul, and I’ve been very well treated; my only grumble is that we are not allowed any exercise time outside, but I can live with that for 14 days. I pay about £80 a day for room and board; my meals are left outside my door and the door alarm, which is active for 24 hours a day, is switched off for three short periods to allow me to get my food and put my rubbish out. The room will not be cleaned while I am in it, and the towels and bed linen I have used will be destroyed after I leave. I’m tested for Covid on the 2nd and 14th days of quarantine, and twice a day a medical officer in full hazmat gear takes my temperature, which I then upload into the app that was installed on my smartphone at the airport when I arrived. The app constantly monitors my location and we are warned about the penalties for breaking quarantine … Koreans will be fined up to £7,000 and may face a one-year prison sentence, and foreigners will be deported and banned from re-entry for five years. We can’t say that we haven’t been warned!
Throughout the day, I get messages on my phone from the authorities (which are sent out to the whole nation) reminding me of the action I can take to stay safe, encouraging me to engage in ‘protective cooperation’ for the common good and, with the biggest holiday of the year starting tomorrow, asking me to refrain from large family meetings and long-distance travel. The remarkable feature of their track and trace system is that it provides a very detailed list of all the places visited by the majority of people who have tested positive (about 20% are not traceable) with specific dates and times, and asks people who were in the close vicinity to get tested. Although Korea is going through seismic social changes, the society remains very much oriented towards groups rather than individuals and there is still a strong sense of social responsibility. It remains to be seen whether we will get the usual holiday traffic jams tomorrow and what the impact of the five-day celebrations will be, but I’m betting that the Koreans will do the right thing.
Hopefully, I’ll be free in just under 48 hours’ time and I have to say that my UK lockdown experience prepared me very well for these two weeks. I knew that I would need structure to my day … I knew that I would need to keep busy and stay in contact with friends through WhatsApp, Zoom and Skype .. and I knew that I would need to keep fit and flexible. Doing my online Pilates classes ticked all of these boxes … I have never been happier to see Katie’s studio and Sarah-Lou’s smiling face than during my two weeks of solitary confinement in Korea!