COVID-19: A South African in South Korea talks about panic buying and more

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You can’t open any social media platform or peek at a newspaper without seeing the word Corona somewhere. It is everywhere. Always. And a bit overwhelming.

While it has been the norm lately for those living in China, South Korea and Italy, South Africa only recently woke up to the pandemic becoming a reality.

Sandhira Chetty lives in Hwasun, a small town southwest from Daegu, the “Wuhan of South Korea” and the centre of the country’s ballooning COVID-19 outbreak. To date there are over 8500 cases in South Korea and the country has gone through extraordinary measures to flatten the curve.

In light of social distancing, panic buying and how to stay sane, Sandhira – a South African who has lived in Korea for nearly a decade as an ESL teacher – puts things into perspective for South Africans.

How is COVID-19 impacting your life?

As with most people in the entire world, the virus has caused my life to come to pretty much a standstill. I’m an ESL teacher in Korea and as I’m sure you’re aware, Korea has one of the highest number of confirmed cases out of all affected countries. Obviously, schools nationwide have been closed until April (until further notice). The school year in Korea was supposed to start on the 3rd of March, which means I haven’t been to work since then. I count myself very lucky as I have been granted paid leave, so I’ve been isolating myself at home.

In Korea, social-distancing is imperative. I don’t travel at all anymore. I haven’t left my town in weeks. I don’t go to restaurants at all – zero social activities. All public events have been cancelled in Korea anyway. I see friends, but never more than two friends at a time. I go to the shops, but only when I absolutely need to. I’ve taken my self-isolation very seriously simply because I see national safety as my own responsibility – as should every individual.

What measures are being put into place by the Korean Government to stop the spread of the virus?

This is hard to believe, but even though Korea has one of the highest number of confirmed cases in the world, it is without doubt the safest country to be in. The measures the Korean government have taken to fight the virus are outstanding and can’t be rivalled. In fact, the only reason the number of confirmed cases in Korea is so high is due to the widespread testing on people that is being done. The testing is so extensive that it is only logical that more confirmed cases are surfacing. The government has made the testing incredibly accessible. Many people get tested for free.

In Korea, they have set up apps to communicate absolutely everything to the public. Apps are constantly updated with confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths and exact locations of these. Which means every person is notified immediately on their phones if there is a new case, we are also told of that patient’s activities around the time they contracted the virus so others in that area know if they were also in that vicinity and this will most probably lead to them getting tested as well.

Korea has also set up a hotline for people with suspected symptoms. In Korea, if you suspect you have symptoms (even if it’s a simple cold), you are not allowed to step foot into a doctor/clinic/hospital. Instead, you must phone the hotline and emergency services will come to you, ensuring that you do not infect anyone else. When the emergency services take you away to a facility to treat you, the route that they take is also shown to the public so that that route can be avoided by others! The extent of the communication and the transparency of the Korean government is honestly astounding and enough to put you at ease.

In addition to this, Korea has built drive-through clinics where you can get tested and they’ve now even set up hospital “phone booths” ensuring maximum safety precautions and hygiene while testing a person.

The list goes on, but their technology and innovative means of handling the virus astound me every day.

Are there any restrictions in terms of public places, public transport, restaurants and shops?

Needless to say the restrictions are intense. Restaurants are much quieter. Streets are quieter in general as people remain isolated indoors. People still go out to exercise and get fresh air, but it’s quick and then they’re back indoors. All public events have been cancelled in Korea. I have a friend who is a huge BTS fan and their concert in April was cancelled (obviously). My friend looked as if she was going to suffer a stroke. You’re not allowed to go to the movies anymore and no gatherings at all, and of course schools have been shut down. Public transport is still running, but the amazing thing about Korea is they’ve built sinks at bus stops so you can wash your hands, and they have provided hand sanitiser at the bus stops, too! Even when you get on the bus, they provide you with hand sanitiser on the bus!

I’ve noticed that the street food vendors have all disappeared, which is really sad, but that’s the reality – it’s too risky. Shops are much quieter as everyone is buying everything, including groceries, online. But to be honest, people here were buying things online before the virus even existed just because Korea has always been an online culture. Why buy your cheese at the shop when you can get it delivered to your door?!

All over the world and now in South Africa people are panic buying. What is the situation looking like in South Korea?

No offence, but in Korea everyone is laughing at people in other countries buying out all the groceries in the stores. That problem does not even exist in Korea! And my Korean colleagues are asking me why people are doing that abroad and I just hang my head in shame. Groceries, and that includes toilet paper, are still in abundance here – in every store that I visit. In Korea, you will NEVER find people panic-buying at stores.

And that’s because they are considerate of others; they are concerned about others as much as they are concerned for themselves. They are also fully aware that food isn’t going to run out. They are fully aware that this isn’t an apocalypse. They are also fully aware that there are other ways to clean their bums, making toilet paper the least of their concerns – as it should be. I’m still laughing about this toilet paper frenzy – it is incomprehensible and bizarre to watch. Soap and hand sanitiser are still accessible here because like I said, people here are considerate of others. To the people who are hoarding soap and/or sanitiser: please know that in order to not get the virus you need others to be clean as well; just having clean hands yourself isn’t going to help.
The only issue here, like it is elsewhere in the world, is masks. They are still hard to come by, which is why the Korean government has started rationing them. They have set up stations where you can get masks and they only allow each individual to take a certain number of masks – a different number depending on which city you are in.

They have also set up an app which allows you to see where masks are being sold AND how many they still have in stock. They have also set up a system for collecting masks so that the entire population doesn’t go at once, for example, if your birth date ends in a 2 or 4 – you collect your masks on a Monday. Really convenient, efficient and logical!


Your town in South Korea has its first confirmed case. How has this impacted you, do you do things differently now?

Ah yes, a couple of days ago, my little town got its first confirmed case. I was just saying to some friends not long ago how remarkable that was considering we are so close to a large city called Gwangju where a number of confirmed cases cropped up.

Anyway, here we are. I panicked when I got the emergency alert on my phone and I got strict instructions from my Korean colleagues to not step a toe outside. I definitely listened to them and limited my outings even more. I sanitise even more often, which I didn’t think was possible! But unbelievably, since that one person tested positive (4 days ago now), no one else has tested positive (touch wood!) It is possible that just no one has shown symptoms yet – but I’m taking it as a good sign! I have stopped panicking, but I am still cautious and my hands still have a constant whiff of sanitiser.

Being at home most of the time, how do you stay sane?

I simply do the things I love – I write, I focus on my YouTube channel and I read (please read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – it’s life changing!)

When you do the things you love, you forget that you’re going insane! Oh, I’ve also given my flat an entire makeover, which would never have happened if I wasn’t in isolation – and now my flat looks so pretty I never want to leave it – which makes isolation much easier!

What is your biggest concern for South Africa now that the number of cases is on the rise?

I was always concerned about SA before they even had a single case. Seeing the extensive work being done by the Korean government to combat the virus, I knew we were not ready.

Do our government have what it takes to fight the virus?
Do we have sufficient technology and resources to fight the virus?
Will South Africans take the virus seriously enough to make the safety of others their own responsibility?

Now that the virus has reached home, my concerns haven’t changed. The numbers in SA are rising too fast. I’m worried we will not have enough resources to fight the virus. I’m worried the poor will not get taken care of. What will happen if this virus has to hit a township area where people still live in dire conditions? What is the government’s plan then?

And lastly, a huge concern of mine is that South Africans are still not taking this seriously enough. My concern is they neglect the self-isolation and endanger others. This blasé behaviour is what will make numbers escalate much faster, and before we know it, it will be out of control.

If you could leave with South Africans with one thought – piece of advice – what would it be?

The defeat of this virus depends on our mass-cooperation. It’s ironic because we have to isolate ourselves and practice social-distancing. But at the same time, we have to work together to defeat it.

Our selfishness will be our downfall. Don’t buy 20 hand sanitisers. Always remember that for you to not get the virus, others must have clean hands too.
Make national safety your responsibility. Think of others. If everyone does this, we will win.

And lastly, don’t feed into the fear caused by the media. Think logically. Panicking will lead to panic-buying. Panic-buying leads to selfishness. Selfishness leads to an endangered national safety.

We will overcome this, I know it. Be safe!

You can follow Sandhira’s Korean escapades on her YouTube channel, click here.