A South Korean soldier on disinfection duty enters an infected apartment early in the pandemic. Photo: AFP

South Korean government strategists, civil servants and healthcare workers have led the nation’s battle against the virus, but it is not only professionals who deserve credit for a campaign that many see as a benchmark for national containment and mitigation.

In a nation with a strong tradition of rallying to the flag – in the 1997 financial crisis, citizens queued to donate their gold and jewelry to buttress national coffers – and a powerful tradition of civic activism, an army of volunteers has rallied to the anti-Covid-19 cause.

High-profile doctor-turned-software-entrepreneur-turned politician Ahn Cheol-soo is, in many ways, Korea’s perfect renaissance man. The founder of the country’s most successful anti-virus software firm, AhnLab, he subsequently moved into politics and became an eventually unsuccessful presidential candidate.

He won widespread public kudos when, early in the outbreak, he doffed politicians’ attire and donned a doctor’s gown and stethoscope as he stepped in to help fight the virus.

But Ahn is far from the only former medical pro to return to the front lines.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korean Nurses Association have reportedly been overwhelmed by the number of former healthcare professionals who have volunteered to assist in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province – South Korea’s hardest-hit areas.

While ex-medical pros are carrying out front-line duties with infected patients, other volunteers are engaged at non-Covid-19 hospitals, with some manufacturing basic medical equipment. Corporations, too, have joined the fight, offering physical facilities to function as emergency health centers.

These are accounts from three of South Korea’s network of anti-virus volunteers.    

Front line

Kim Jin-sun is working at a Covid-10 medical center in the city of Daegu. She was assigned to the center on March 11, having applied seven days prior. Formerly a nurse specializing in blood diseases at Korea University Hospital, she departed nursing for publishing, but felt duty-bound to return due to the gravity of the crisis.

“I felt I had to apply to work for the people in Daegu after I heard medical staffers there said they needed more assistance,” Kim told Asia Times. Her duties are identical to those of regular nurses – examining patients, administering medicine and collecting samples. 

It has not been easy. Like other nurses, Kim suffers from laboring in protective gear – sweaty bio-hazard suits and goggles that rub against facial skin – for long periods. But she does not regret her decision.

“It is really painful when my skin is pressed upon by protective clothing, and the sweat pours soon after I start wearing it,” she said. “But I have to endure to keep myself safe to do my work.”

Volunteer ex-nurse Kim Jin-sun ready for work. Photo: Courtesy Kim Jin-sun

Kim works an eight-hour shift, five days a week. And she has accepted not just risk, but also severe restrictions on her personal freedoms. She and other nurses live in dormitory adjacent to the health center, and are forbidden to leave. All supplies are provided from outside.

Still, her difficulties have been eased, to a considerable degree, by sound policy.

Tactics changed

At the early stages of the outbreak, all infected persons were sent to hospitals, swamping staff. Healthcare workers had a break after the government changed tactics in early March to save medical workers’ energy.

Under a revised manual, specialist hospitals and centers were established exclusively for Covid-19 patients, while patients were divided into two groups: Those with serious symptoms were dispatched to hospitals and those with mild symptoms to health centers.

Not only did this tactic assist case flow, it also allowed health workers to focus on specific skillsets.

“Since I started working here, I feel the system has settled down and the government supported the workers as best it can,” she said. “We have enough protective clothing and workers – firefighters, soldiers, medical staff members, officials of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, etc – are really working hard under strict disinfecting conditions.”

The physical center has also been volunteered. Due to a national shortage of health facilities, corporations stepped in and provided training centers for the government’s use. Kim’s Covid-19 health center was originally a Samsung training center.

And for Kim, it is not about money.

“I’ve heard that I can get paid, but I don’t know the exact amount since I decided to donate it before I came here,” she said.

Gate guard

Not all medical volunteers are engaged directly in Covid-19 work. South Korea has been careful to designate special Covid-19 treatment centers to firewall the disease from the regular hospital population.

Lee Da-hee graduated in health care from Dongduk Women’s University in January and has been volunteering at Seoul’s flagship Severance Hospital – which does not treat Covid-19 patients – for 15 weeks.

She has taken on a range of roles. “I have worked in various departments under staff members in charge of managing volunteers,” she said.

A critical factor for the hospital is checking that incoming patients are not infected – thermal imaging cameras that check for fever are set up at the entrance. Among other duties, Lee has been manning these cameras.

Recent graduate and volunteer Lee Dae-hee mans the thermal imaging camera at Seoul’s Severance Hospital. Photo: Courtesy Lee Da-hee

Still, she has some criticisms about the low priorities volunteers get when it comes to the provision of equipment.

“I understand that our government is doing well,” she said. “But some of the volunteers at the hospital I work at couldn’t get over-garments and gloves. I hope they get those as soon as possible to work safely.” 

Face time

One issue that has arisen in South Korea – as elsewhere – is a shortage of face masks. In an  act of civic virtue, many citizens have begun wearing cotton masks to enable medical-quality masks to go to hospital personnel.

The government also appealed to the public, and volunteers have responded, making masks of their own to donate.

About 251 volunteers took part in a mask-making event in the city of Goyang, a satellite town northwest of Seoul, from March 5. They produced a total of 1,799 masks before being shut down as more stringent social distancing measures were applied.

Mask making volunteers hard at work at the Goyang Volunteer Center. Photo: Courtesy GVC

Lee Soo-yoon, 28, a company worker, was among them.

“I majored in design at college, so I can handle sewing,” she told Asia Times. “I joined my mother in this and I am glad that I could do something for people who need help.”

Lee said she was particularly compelled to volunteer after hearing that some senior citizens were picking up masks that had been discarded on the ground and wearing them as hoped-for protection.

Though some question the efficacy of cotton masks, Lee has her own arguments for their use.

“My family members have mostly been using [cotton masks] and we wash them every day,” she said. “We can only buy two kinds of masks [in pharmacies], and I think there are people who need them more than us.”

The cotton mask-making center is poised to resume activities after April. 5, when current social-distancing guidelines are expected to be eased.

For some, the benefits of volunteering may extend beyond the personal gratification of doing the right thing and leaving them able to answer the question “What did you do during the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak?” with pride.

With South Korea having successfully flattened its curve, Ahn, the doctor-cum-entrepreneur-cum-politician, has finished his stint at a hospital in Daegu. After a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine, he has resumed political activities by kicking off his People’s Party campaign ahead of the April 15 National Assembly elections.