COVID frontline: South Korea and England

From Tasia Abbatecola, Seoul, South Korea

South Korea: first case reported 20 January

Cases 10,331; deaths 192

(At 10:00 CET on Tuesday 7 April)

I first heard of this virus going around in China in January. Whilst maybe a little bit concerned, I didn’t really give it a lot of attention. What are the chances that this virus is ever going to affect me anyways? Pretty high, as it turns out.

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Tasia Abbatecola in her “lazy quarantine” look.

I do remember the day I realised that this was, in fact, a big deal: it was in the beginning of February and I was sitting in a restaurant with my friend. We were laughing and singing along to some songs playing in the background. Suddenly all of our phones went off at the same time. Emergency alert. The Korean government sends them out to everyone’s phones, usually to warn us about the fine dust. Or heavy rain. But this time it was to tell us that the country was on red alert. That we should all stay home as much as we could because there was a deadly virus on the loose.

I had never experienced anything like that, so I didn’t really know what that meant for my life. But from the next day on, Seoul turned into a ghost town. It’s been two months and… I can’t possibly tell you how many K-dramas I have gone through. And wine bottles (sharing with my roomies, no judgment please. It’s been two months!).

I also don’t really remember what it feels like to put on jeans or makeup. I rarely go out, so why bother? We’re not technically on lockdown. We’re allowed to go out. We’re just advised via emergency alerts not to. All. The. Time. And most people comply and stay inside. Life is not drastically different – because the government reacted so quickly and managed to contain the outbreak more or less – but there are still some changes, such as…

  •  I had to start putting my phone on airplane mode because the emergency alerts wouldn’t stop and kept waking me up early mornings (never a good start into the day). They still send them out every time there is an update concerning the virus and whenever someone in my vicinity gets infected. Getting these alerts is stressful and comforting at the same time. But I like that they’re being transparent with the information.
  •  Small businesses shut down because of the lack of customers. Everyone else has altered opening hours (they open later, close earlier). Every morning there is a huge queue in front of the pharmacies. There’s only a limited number of masks and you can only get a maximum of two per week. Everyone that’s outside is wearing a mask. There’s endless signs or loudspeaker announcements telling you to wear one, wash your hands and go get checked if you have any of the symptoms. Wherever you go, you’ll be reminded of the virus. So, better to stay inside anyways. And that’s what we do.

My roommates and I scheduled drama nights for almost every night after work. We’ll get some food and yell at the TV together (anyone watching Crash Landing on You? ADDICTED). Or we’ll stream some concerts, since literally every single show we wanted to go to since February was cancelled. So really, we’re pretty lucky because we have the possibility to just comfortably wait it all out inside. And we’re more or less safe.

My only worries are my friends and family back in Europe. Finding flights from Korea to Europe is almost impossible at the moment, which is why I’ll just have to wait it out here without them. I’m pretty much stuck here since the rest of the world has banned travellers coming from South Korea. But there’s worse places to be stuck in.

The fight against the virus is not over yet, but I feel like South Korea is close to winning it. We’ve just gotta hold on and stay put for a little longer.

From Holly Barry, Aylesbury, England

UK: first case reported 31 January

Cases 51,612; deaths 5373

(At 10:00 CET on Tuesday 7 April)

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A deserted Shaftesbury Avenue in London, England. 

It feels surreal typing out information about coronavirus cases in the UK. Only three weeks ago I was counting down to my wedding day, making exciting summer plans with close friends and family and was immensely enjoying my job – which now ceases to exist. 

Whilst my plans are for now on hold, I count myself very lucky. COVID-19 cases in the UK increased ten-fold in a very short space of time. Currently, we’re facing lockdown for three weeks. We have been instructed to stay and work at home to help stop the spread of the disease. We’ve been told that we are to only make trips to the supermarket if they are for essential items; we are also permitted to do one form of outdoor exercise a day whilst maintaining a two-metre distance from other people at all times. In the space of several weeks cases in the UK have increased from 40 people to more than 50,000 with the peak expected to hit over Easter – this week.

The UK government could have closed restaurants, bars and schools sooner, but their strategy was to keep people from panicking, implementing a phased approach to the lockdown. In some ways, this has worked but we too have been subject to people panic-buying, with shoppers stockpiling toilet roll, pasta and canned meat. Reality hit us when we saw masses of people queueing to enter supermarkets and pharmacies. One store manager even told my grandparents that shoppers would start arriving just in time for the deliveries at 4am. 

At first, people were emptying the shelves – you couldn’t even buy plain flour to bake with – but once lockdown was introduced on 23 March people seemed to start listening. My first visit to a supermarket after the lockdown announcement was met with a very empty shelves and the few shoppers there wearing masks and gloves. 

Additionally, the strategy from the government, in the beginning, was to relieve any undue pressure on the NHS, which was still below maximum capacity two weeks ago. The UK is now waiting to see the effects of the lockdown with regards to flattening the curve of confirmed cases and deaths which are to be expected over the coming weeks. Now that the NHS is reaching full capacity, the NHS Nightingale Hospital (previously the London ExCeL Centre, used for conferences and events) has been built in just two weeks is now ready for 4000 patients. 

Whilst things are expected to get worse in the UK, my partner and I remain optimistic. Every day we make sure to do some form of exercise, whether that’s a HIIT workout in the garden or a run around our local area. The roads are eerily quiet, which means our runs are not staggered by having to stop at every other traffic light. Most people in our town have exactly the same idea, so we do get to see people out and about doing their daily exercise. I have become somewhat obsessed with TikTok (it’s a lot harder than it looks to emulate any of the challenges), The Tiger King on Netflix and This Country on the BBC, which is keeping me sane. However, with a considerable increase in FaceTime and House Party calls, as well as Whatsapp messages, my daily screen time has rocketed from 2 hours 12 minutes to a whopping 4:31…

We have postponed our wedding to next year when we hope family and friends will be able to really enjoy themselves without any doubts as to whether they should be “social distancing”. I have even managed to find another job with an immediate start date! We are going to continue to follow the government’s guidance, keeping inside where possible, giving one another the space to do our own thing during the day whilst keeping in close contact with our friends and family on regular calls. 

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