Masks and coronavirus observations from Seoul

I drew this from the cover of the Joongang Ilbo newspaper last week. The photo was of travelers from China arriving at Incheon airport. Obviously this is a serious issue and I didn’t mean to come off flippant, but I remember thinking at the time it seemed a bit overboard. I don’t think that anymore.

A few days ago I was waiting in line at the post office and a woman in front of me was mailing a package to China. You could tell from her accent she was Chinese, and immediately the postal worker knew she was sending a box of masks to her family back home. I guess lots of Chinese exchange students have been doing the same recently. This student was lucky though because the next day Korea Post suspended mail to China due to the lack of of China-bound flights.

My friend who works in China and was home for the lunar new year holiday received a very late notice from the Department of Health saying she was to be quarantined at home for two weeks. Apparently she had sat within three rows of a confirmed patient.

Usually in the winter you’ll see a few people in masks on the street, either the single-use kind or the cotton ones. Heck you’ll see a few of them year round. Right now, I’d say about 70 to 80 percent of people I see on the streets are wearing masks. All the employees in chain cafes and stores are wearing them–I assume it’s a temporary company policy. And while it’s not quite mass mask shortages yet, my local convenience stores seem to have run out of them.

The Ministry of Education recommended universities delay the start of the new semester by up to four weeks, and many have cancelled orientations and graduation ceremonies (the new school year starts in March in Korea).

I’m not a news junkie and I generally tend to under react to this type of thing, but walking down the street seeing everyone in masks, it just feels a bit apocalyptic. I remember feeling similarly during the MERS outbreak a few years ago. Back then every public place had installed bottles and sprayers of hand sanitizer, even the buses. I remember I couldn’t find a bottle of rubbing alcohol at the height of the outbreak. I also remember sitting on the bus and getting VERY ANGRY/ANXIOUS when the man in front of me dared to cough, maskless, and without covering his mouth.

Most estimates put the fatality rate of this coronavirus below 3%, which is much lower than for MERS two years ago. And while there have been 23 confirmed cases so far in Korea, it’s still fairly unlikely for someone outside of China to contract it. I am taking all the recommended precautions and for the most part don’t think about it too much, but one can’t NOT think about it when all you see are masked faces on the street.

A quick timelapse of the street the other day to capture the snow flurries. You can see how most people are masked.

Thoughts on Coronavirus a few weeks later here


  1. It is difficult not to feel the apocalyptic-nature of it all! We have also been trying to respond in an appropriately cautious manner without seeming like mad people. It is challenging though.

    Stay safe and keep healthy!

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  2. Cute drawings. I shared one from these Singaporeans that brought levity to the situation. I think you both said it best, trying to keep ourselves safe, hearing the bells go off, and reading as much as we can! I feel like we’re all holding our breaths!

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    1. Yes except I think I need to take a break from the reading for a mo. Starting to see mentions of increased racism/racially motivated attacks against Asians in Western countries with the “I am not a virus” tag on social media. Feel like this outbreak (and resulting border closings etc) does dance on those issues of discrimination. Wonder how to be cautious but also kind? Not give into fear…


  3. Scary times we live in! And I don’t think anyone would complain about your drawings as making fun of a serious situation. I think of it as a way to remember and take notice of it. I have a friend visiting her parents in Shanghai and haven’t heard from her in a while now so I’m getting a bit anxious. Hopefully she managed to fly back to Japan. Here in Germany all masks were quickly sold (I admit I’ve got some too!) but so far I haven’t seen anyone wearing them (which isn’t much of a thing here anyway). But people seem to want to be prepared just in case. What bothers me most is that Chinese people living and studying here a suddenly being avoided and suspiciously eyed. So far only 13 infected people here and they’re all Germans!

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    1. First I hope your friend has arrived home healthy and safe! I hope you hear from her soon. And yes, I want to take all precautions, but also don’t want to cross the line into indirectly discriminating against a whole nation of people. I hope common sense and compassion can coexist during all this.

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      1. I’ve heard from her today and she’s safe back home! šŸ˜„ She took an earlier flight though because she was afraid Japan might stop letting Chinese in!!
        And yes to common sense and compassion!!!

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  4. What can I say? I agree with you my wise and compassionate friends. No cases Iā€™m aware of here yet, but we do have strong links with China and the already festering racism is growing.

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