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'The virus has always felt at arm's length from me'

Last updated on: April 02, 2020 16:34 IST
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COVID-19 in Korea felt like half-disaster, half-disaster movie.'

IMAGE: A couple takes a walk in Seoul, April 1, 2020. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

NRIs and People of Indian Origin describe the impact coronavirus is having on their lives.


Sayam McMurtie, Seoul, South Korea

As someone of mixed Indian and Scottish descent, who was raised in the United Kingdom, has a business that primarily operates in South Africa and is currently living in South Korea, my corona bubble likely spans further than most.

The murmurs of a cluster of unknown medical anomalies in the largely unknown city of Wuhan, had just began to trickle through to a handful of mainstream media outlets when I embarked on my planned one-year adventure in Korea.

The headlines were enticing enough to provide some decent toilet reading material -- the proximity of China to Korea was enough to store that information in the save-for-later part of my brain.

By the time our New Year's Eve plans -- my girlfriend's and mine -- were scuppered due to being bedridden with fever and a cocktail of other aches and pains, we were joking that we might have that "Wuhan thing."

The transition from punchline to panic was swift.

Moments prior to landing in Seoul, roughly 10 hours into my journey from the UK, an announcement echoed throughout the plane warning passengers to be cautious and take appropriate hygienic measures whilst in the country.

"Avoid unbottled water sources."

"Don't dine at unfamiliar eateries."


It's the first time I've heard such a message upon arrival to a country.

This wasn't something prompted by the now pandemic, as it predated its recognition.

It left me with the preconceived notion that South Korea was a country that required extra hygienic diligence on my part, if I wanted to keep healthy and avoid an expensive prescription.

Fast-forward four months and the nation is now the Poster Child of Pandemic response procedure.

So, as someone at ground level for the entirety of Korea's corona timeline, perhaps I can give some insight into how they managed to curtail the super-virus and send it into remission with apparently unparalleled efficiency?

Well, I'm not sure I can.

When China announced to the world that the not-so-anticipated sequel to SARS had been released, South Korea reacted instantly.

That is, every component of Korea.

The visibility of face masks instantly became common place.

Hand sanitisers were strategically placed at every appropriate point; elevators, point of sale counters, entrances to markets etc.

People took it upon themselves to distance themselves from each other and reduce their travel.

A local cocktail bar I used to frequent went from being quiet and cosy to 'I'm the only customer'... and cosy.

Local business owners I spoke to would tell me how people are becoming cautious and how their business was suffering as a result.

By the time the first suspected patient was announced on January 7, an import from Wuhan, the Korean government had started to engage in constant and concise communication with the public.

The ministry of health issued a plea on January 8, outlining the information gathered thus far and setting the criteria for those who should be concerned - providing a dedicated line of contact.

By January 13, the ministry of health was announcing its plans to develop a localised COVID-19 test kit, promising its delivery within a month.

Within seven days, on January 20, the first confirmed case coming from within Korea was announced.

From that point on, Korea, much like myself, was filled with a flurry of concern -- I say concern, and not panic.

My planned trip to Japan for my 30th birthday was binned.

I now had a valid excuse not go to the gym.

That voice at your shoulder that usually berates you for resorting to the food delivery app, was all but silenced.

Life felt constricted. I felt alert, but never like my existence was hanging in the balance.

Calls from relatives would generally start-off with an inquiry into how my life was contending with the threat of the virus, but only on a superficial level.

The effects, it seemed at the time, were exclusive to the ASEAN nations and their neighbors.

My staff in South Africa seemed entirely oblivious to the situation, and even those that are more avid followers of current events, would talk to me about the topic with a level composure only possible for those perceivably isolated from its effects.

IMAGE: Employees from a disinfection service company sanitise a subway station in Seoul, March 11, 2020. Photograph: Heo Ran/Reuters

In truth, the virus has always felt at arm's length from me.

At its peak, COVID-19 in Korea felt like a half-disaster, half-disaster movie.

The government's persistent updates would be transmitted directly to people's phones, issuing warnings of confirmed cases and sharing their most intimate of recent movements.

The notification noise, that can only be described as the lovechild of a siren and a foghorn, would bellow out in synchronisation.

I recall being in a restaurant (suitably distanced from other patrons, as is now the norm here) as the siren/horn hybrid activated.

The initial panic in the air quickly subsided and reverted to jovial conversation.

It had become so commonplace that curiosity outweighed concern. People would discuss how Victim 3 seemed to be having an affair with Victim 6.

Chuckle over the fact Victim 8 somehow managed to stop off for a quick nose-adjustment in Gangnam (the plastic surgery capital of South Korea, and yes, the same one as the song) shortly before handing themselves over to the relevant COVID-19 test center.

Or seethe at the cult-like rural church that the public now attribute to be the catalyst of the sharp spike in cases we had here.

IMAGE: Sayam McMurtie with his girlfriend Jiseon Baek-lee.

If COVID-19 was a problem faced only in Korea, I would be in the cafe I sit in now, writing this article, thinking, "Ah well, this is annoying."

I would begrudge the fact I had to fill in my contact details and place it in a box before being able to order my coffee -- a precautionary measure to aid in tracing.

As it stands however, the world is in lockdown, my business is temporarily closed as a result.

My father is in Scotland is having conversations with people through his window.

My mother, who falls under the category of particularly vulnerable people, likely wouldn't know where to go or what to do if she did develop symptoms.

I've somehow found myself in one of the only countries in the world where everyday life pretty much resembles normality, albeit with a precautionary layer of societal Dettol.

Just as the world inhales deeply its collective gasp of fear, Korea appears to be almost at the point it can sigh with relief, leaving me stuck somewhere in between.

Dear Reader:

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