The Shins see their sons off to day care. Photo: Tom Coyner

On the macro level, South Korea is winning kudos globally for how its authorities have handled the spread of the novel coronavirus that is currently rampaging across Europe and the United States. But on the micro level, how are ordinary people dealing with the challenges? 

A middle-class Seoul family agreed to show Asia Times how they are coping. They live in Jongeun Dong in northern Seoul – a pretty, low-rise neighborhood that is to the west of the capital’s key landmark, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the presidential mansion, the Blue House.

A royal guard outside Gyeonbokgung Palace is appropriately attired for the novel coronavirus season. Photo: Tom Coyner

Theirs is hardly a story of high drama. Instead it is a tale of constant cleansing and – especially for the children – a struggle against monotony.

Mr. Shin – he requested that his full name not be used — heads up the family.  He is a middle manager at a finance company. His wife Monica — though Korean, she prefers to use her Catholic name  — Jun is a non-uniformed official with the Seoul Metropolitan Police.  Both are 47 years old.

Their two sons Ju-won, 10, and Jun-min, nine, attend the neighborhood primary school. Though the Shins have not been infected by Covid-19, they, like almost all other Korean families, have found their daily lives impacted, and take extensive individual precautions.

Monica gets a fever check before entering her workplace. Photo: Tom Coyner


Since Mr. Shin’s clients are no longer welcoming visits, he is largely confined to teleconferencing from his office. Monica’s work has not been significantly impacted, but each morning when she reports to work, she has her temperature taken at the entrance.  As an added precaution, she — like virtually all visitors — sanitizes her hands at the police station’s front gate.

On Sundays, the family no longer goes to church for mass.  Instead, they video worship at home. It is the weekdays, however, that prove the most difficult.

On Sunday, the Shins tune into an online Catholic service. Photo: Photo: Tom Coyner

The boys are underfoot and often bored.  While schools are shut down until the first week of April, the Shins have been able to enroll their sons into a limited attendance, half-day neighborhood school that offers day-care for families with two working parents. However, there is no official curriculum and parents provide the lunches.

The classes, with many fewer students than regular school, relieve much of the boys’ monotony and offer some relief to their working parents. Like their mother, the boys sanitize their hands at the school’s front gate.

The parents have had to come up with new activities.  Sometime they go hiking in the hillside parks and trails common in northern Seoul. Other times, they walk their friends’ dogs. When out in public, the boys mask up, but when they are distant from other people, the masks come off.

The Shins walk their neighbors dogs. When the social distance from others is appropriate, the masks come off. Photo: Tom Coyner

Other activities, such as visiting museums – all of which are in indefinite lockdown – are currently unavailable.  To break up the boredom, when Monica has the time off she sometimes splurges on a meal at a restaurant. Inevitably, a hand sanitation station is usually present at the entrance.

Hand sanitizers and health masks were once available by vending machines at the entrances to public restrooms. Today, while hand sanitation products are still obtainable, masks are not. Pharmacies quickly ran out of thermometers and masks. 

Get your masks here – as long as it is your day for the mask ration, that is. Photo: Tom Coyner

The government remedied the problem in a very South Korean way. Quality masks are ration-sold through designated pharmacies and people can buy only on certain days, as determined by their birth year, which is verified with their ID cards.  Citizens know on which days and at which pharmacies to buy their masks by looking at a website on their smartphones that states on-hand inventory status as well as directions to the day’s designated pharmacies.

While the vast majority of people wear masks outside, there has been some relaxation and they are not worn as consistently as in the past. Some taxi drivers are bare-faced and seem unconcerned as to whether their passengers are masked, although other taxi drivers insist their fares mask up. 

Virtually everyone on buses and subways wear masks, and buses have hand sanitizers taped next to the pass/credit card machines at bus exits.

There has been no panic buying. Toilet paper and instant ramen noodles, for example, can be easily found at all grocery stores. Costco has been selling inexpensive masks, but they have not been selling well. Koreans are demanding the kind of high-quality masks that are normally sold by pharmacies.

Discount masks from Costco are not favored. Photo: Tom Coyner

While not everyone fully supports the country’s president in the face of this crisis, President’s Moon Jae-in’s leadership is not questioned. There is a high degree of trust in relevant health authorities and news and public information updates from various media are widely followed.  The face mask has almost become a badge of civic solidarity. 

While much attention has been given to the government’s rapid response, including extensive testing, none of this would have been successful without Korean citizens’ quiet, and generally accepting compliance with the timely and trustworthy countermeasures that have been put in place.   

If other people are nearby while dog walking, the masks come back on. Photo: Tom Coyner



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