Ahead of the curve: why South Korea is winning the virus war

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Ahead of the curve: why South Korea is winning the virus war

South African explains how, as Covid-19 ravages the rest of the world, this nation is returning to normality

Journalist
SA teacher says life feels normal again in Gwangju, the sixth-biggest city in South Korea - a country that led the way in coping with Covid-19.
Under control SA teacher says life feels normal again in Gwangju, the sixth-biggest city in South Korea - a country that led the way in coping with Covid-19.
Image: Victoria Briggs

“It all feels quite normal here,” says Victoria Briggs, who lives in Gwangju, South Korea.

The 23-year-old from East London, who is teaching English in South Korea, adds: “There is not that sense of living in fear, not that much panic.”

The democratic South Korea is a world leader in containing Covid-19 deaths – 186 confirmed by Monday out of 10,284 infections – by rapidly prioritising mass testing and tracing infected individuals, among other measures.

Even now, as society returns to normal, Briggs gets one or two “emergency alerts” a day on her cellphone about suspected or new cases.

The alerts give the date and timeline of where the infected individuals have been in the city. Then anyone who may have been in contact with them can go and be tested.

“It is particular to each city and very impressive,” said Briggs, who uses an app to translate the Korean into English.

“The emergency alert is sent to all cellphones, no matter where you are or what phone company you are with.”

“We don’t have any sort of lockdown or quarantine at the moment,” said Briggs of Gwangju.

Restaurants are open again in Gwangju and the streets are busier than in February.
life goes on Restaurants are open again in Gwangju and the streets are busier than in February.
Image: Victoria Briggs

“When I arrived in mid-February, the streets were quiet, but I didn’t have anything to compare them to. Now they seem busier and the restaurants are as busy as always.”

Most public schools are still closed but Briggs is teaching full hours at the private English academy that employed her. “It’s up to parents if they want to send their kids to the school and the majority are sending them.

“When I arrived, the virus was spreading but wasn’t bad yet. South Korea hardly had any cases. I had been here for about a week when there was a sudden outbreak, the cases just started.”

Early on, South Korea had the second-most cases after China, where the coronavirus pandemic started.

In South Korea, as in other parts of Asia, wearing face masks to combat pollution is common.

“Most people here wear masks. Now they are taking it more seriously and making sure their kids are wearing masks,” said Briggs.

“Still, some kids don’t, and they are not strict on it. You don’t get a fine if you don’t wear a mask,” she said, describing the citizens as “rule-abiding”.

Daily emergency alerts in South Korea encourage testing and contact tracing to stop Covid-19.
Daily emergency alerts in South Korea encourage testing and contact tracing to stop Covid-19.
Image: Victoria Briggs

“I’m in a smaller city [about a million people and the sixth-biggest in South Korea] and luckily there are not that many cases where I am.”

Briggs had to get a medical check to get a foreign residency card when she arrived.

South African Victoria Briggs feels that South Korea is a good country to be living in during the pandemic.
Room to breathe South African Victoria Briggs feels that South Korea is a good country to be living in during the pandemic.
Image: Victoria Briggs

“At first we were not allowed to enter the hospital because they were worried about foreigners, but I was able to do it a few weeks later.

“I have not personally seen testing but, in most public buildings, whenever you walk in there are thermal cameras to test your temperature and there is always hand sanitiser.

“Hand sanitiser is everywhere, whenever you need it.”

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