A staff member offers rapid self-test kits for Covid-19 in Seoul as the country sees a spike in infections with the disease. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

What a difference a trip around the sun can make.

Just a year ago I sat here on the rocky shores of Korea in a kind of smug expat cocoon, gazing toward the USA and counting my lucky kimchi leaves that I was here instead of there.

After all, the bush fire of Covid-19 was sweeping across the States with no end in sight, along with the actual fires from street protests and riots fueled by decades of racial injustice. The federal response to the pandemic – presided over by a callous and incompetent Donald Trump – vacillated between Keystone Cops bumbling and outright criminal neglect.

Exacerbating the crisis were the American people themselves: While much of the country readily adopted measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, a sizable (and very vocal) minority embraced a kind of toxic, hyper-tribalism that veered deeply into the realm of psychosis. They not only refused to follow the most basic protocols, but often rejected the very notion of the pandemic as some kind of manufactured liberal myth.

The result was an America consumed by madness, a country that had not only gone off the rails, but was plunging from the trestle into alligator-infested waters below. Like others who voluntarily left the States for more exotic pastures, I patted myself on the back for what I considered to be a very wise move. After all, self-inflicted ignorance, chaos, and hardship just seemed to be another day in the U S of A. 

Of course my adopted home, South Korea, was held up as a glimmering of exactly how to handle the pandemic. Through a combination of preparation, organization, technology, and a population largely willing to come together for the collective good, Korea managed to fight off the initial wave of the virus and keep any large-scale outbreaks at bay.

Covid-19 seemed to be very much under control, and while life didn’t exactly return to normal, people were still able to go about their days relatively free of onerous social restrictions.  

For all of its supposed competence, however, South Korea wasn’t even the real success story. Some East Asian countries, such as Taiwan and Vietnam, somehow managed to snuff out the virus altogether.

For most of last year – at least within the confines of their borders – it was business as usual: Restaurants and bars operated freely, concerts and other large gatherings went on as planned, and people enjoyed the kind of pre-pandemic life that most of us could only dream of. Both the governments and residents of these places (including a few cocky expat friends) boasted of achieving “zero Covid,” though it’s now clear such proclamations, like so many made in times of crisis, were staggeringly premature.

While still mired in hysteria and unrest, the election of Joe Biden last November seemed at least to begin to pour some water on the Covid bonfire back home. No longer would we have a president who fiddled with Twitter while the flames raged around him, but instead a man who at least projected empathy and arrived in office with a solid plan. Under his watch the country became awash in vaccines, to the point where pretty much any American adult who was willing could get his or her shot.

I will admit to being gobsmacked by the speed and seeming efficiency of the rollout back home. Suddenly my social media were inundated with friends taking vaccine selfies; this went on for weeks on end. Places with the strictest rules such as Washington state and California began scaling back their regulations, until, in what appeared to be sudden moves, they lifted their mask mandates altogether.

From the stones of my once self-important Korean shore I gazed again across the Pacific, this time with a newfound sense of respect for good that ol’ fashioned Yankee knowhow and gumption, tinged, of course, with envy. After all, I was living in one of the countries that supposedly set the gold standard for pandemic preparedness, yet as the winter bled into the spring and then into early summer, there was barely a word about the vaccines.

When could we expect our shots?

South Korea, along with Japan, deliberately chose to take the “wait and see” approach. After all, the infection rate had never gotten out of hand here, so President Moon Jae-in decided to take the gamble of making sure the vaccines were effective and safe before distributing them on home turf.

Moon, however, failed to take into account that by the time Korea was ready for inoculations, there would be a significant gap between demand and availability. This resulted in a trickle of doses. 

This approach backfired, politically as well, with Moon’s Democratic Party getting shellacked in national by-elections last March.

While only 21 mayoral and municipal seats were up for grabs, the contests were largely considered a referendum on Moon’s job performance; while several factors went into his majority party’s poor showing (including runaway housing prices and North Korean policy), his administration’s perceived bungling of the vaccine rollout weighed mightily in the mix. Koreans were tired of waiting.

Then came the Delta variant.

Originating in India, this mutation is said to be far more contagious than the virus’ original form, and now accounts for many of the infections worldwide. Over the past couple of weeks it has swept through the Asia-Pacific region, penetrating even the once-seeming fortresses of Taiwan and Vietnam.

While Taiwan seems to have halted its spread, Vietnam is facing what could amount to a major outbreak. Much of Ho Chi Minh City is currently under strict lockdown, a brutal reminder that the country’s good fortune during the first half of this saga was both fragile and temporary.

Japan is now up to 2,000 cases a day and rising, with the Tokyo Olympics little more than a week out, and here in South Korea we’re posting our highest infection numbers since the start of the pandemic.

Seoul is under its harshest restrictions so far, yet with the summer travel season well under way, residents of the capital are pouring out to islands and beaches far from the capital in an attempt to beat the heat. Surely some will bring the virus with them, which can’t translate into good news.

Still, there’s room for optimism. Despite a start that moved at the speed of wood, vaccinations are finally picking up steam both here and in other countries throughout the region. In fact, I just got a text notifying me that I’ll be able to book my first shot come Monday. I’ve been awaiting this message for months now.

Americans, it seems, don’t know how lucky they are right now. I can’t help but look at the carefree summer many of my friends and family are currently enjoying and sigh. Just a few days ago a good buddy sent me video footage of him taking in a baseball game. He was eating a hotdog and sipping a cold one in a packed ballpark in Seattle, and no one was wearing a mask.

Things, it seemed, were really back to normal.
Still, many back home don’t seem to realize that this is an actual example of American exceptionalism, which should come as no surprise, since the US has always existed in a kind of bubble of splendid ignorance. When another American friend recently learned that I was still waiting to be vaccinated, he couldn’t believe it. 

“What? Are you sure you’re not in North Korea?”

“Welcome to the rest of the world,” I said. 

Chris Tharp is the author of The Worst Motorcycle in Laos and Dispatches from the Peninsula. His award-winning writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. He lives in Busan, South Korea, with his wife and a houseful of animals.