'It Was Just A Matter Of Time': Korean-Americans Saw Coronavirus Coming Korean-Americans watched coronavirus wrack their home country. Now, they offer lessons for their neighbors in the U.S.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

NPR logo 'It Was Just A Matter Of Time': Korean-Americans Saw Coronavirus Coming

'It Was Just A Matter Of Time': Korean-Americans Saw Coronavirus Coming

Dr. Heisung Lee keeps a checklist of coronavirus symptoms on her office door in Springfield, Va. She shut down a senior citizen entertainment program in early March to prevent the spread of coronavirus, far before Virginia authorities acted. Daniella Cheslow/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Daniella Cheslow/WAMU

In early March, Dr. Heisung Lee canceled the spring recreational program she runs for hundreds of Korean-American senior citizens in Fairfax, Va. Many of them had traveled to South Korea to visit family, and she worried they might carry the coronavirus that had spread from China. The program would have begun on March 3. Twelve days passed before Fairfax County shut down all senior centers to prevent the spread of infection.

"At that time I was a little bit concerned, what if I shouldn't close," Lee said of her decision. "But it came out we were a little bit ahead."

The Korean community around Washington, D.C. is the country's third-largest after Los Angeles and New York. Both South Korea and the United States reported their first cases to the World Health Organization on January 20, 2020. However, the South Korean government clamped down on the disease early, implementing mass testing, quarantining positive cases and tracking the spread of infection. Those efforts seem to be working: South Korea's death toll is less than 200, while the U.S. has already seen at least 1,000 people succumb to COVID-19.

Article continues below

Virginia Del. Mark Keam, who was born in South Korea, said his community foresaw an American outbreak because they followed news from their home country.

"Koreans were watching what was going on in Korea, and then they were watching what was going on on the West Coast, and so they realized it was just a matter of time," Keam said.

As American authorities began to close schools and businesses, and started a limited national testing program, Keam saw his community already well ahead. He said Korean churches in his district implemented social distancing weeks ahead of the rest of Virginia, asking worshippers not to shake hands or hug. One church requested in February that members who had recently traveled to South Korea stay away from services for two weeks.

Virginia reported its first case of the novel coronavirus on March 7, 2020. Four days later, Keam received an email from an old friend, Steve Kim, who offered to sell him coronavirus testing kits made in South Korea and certified by European regulators.

"I understand that all government entities in both Federal and state levels are looking to resolve the COVID-19 testing kit availability issue," Kim wrote.

Keam said he forwarded the query to the Virginia Department of Health. VDH spokeswoman Tammie Smith wrote WAMU that "many people at VDH are getting emails about different products, including test kits. That information is being collected and shared with the appropriate people to evaluate."

Virginia is still constrained by its lack of tests; fewer than 8,000 of the state's 8.5 million residents were tested as of Friday.

Korean-Americans are also acutely aware of the limits of the American response. Keam said South Korean authorities publish details about individuals who test positive. This contact tracing includes the person's age, gender and recent whereabouts, down to credit card transactions and hotel stays, according to Nature.

By contrast, America has strong privacy laws when it comes to the sharing of patient information. State health authorities are not allowed to make public identifying details about individual cases.

"A person in Fairfax County, a person in Virginia Beach, somebody in his 80s. Very vague," Keam said. "I'm not advocating that we disclose people's private information, certainly not, but ... it's really hard for the next-door neighbor to know or their church friends to know."

In South Korea, strict measures were key to dampening the toll of the virus. As of March 26, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about 9,200 cases of coronavirus, with 131 deaths. In the course of a day, Korean health authorities reported 414 people were released from isolation, far more than the 104 new cases confirmed.

South Korea's success may also be the product of cultural differences. People wear masks when they are sick and when pollution is high. Keam says there's also a high value placed on community, which can make enforcing government guidelines easier.

And some practice fastidious personal behavior. Attorney Suyong Min, who used to live in Arlington, detailed her new normal in Seoul in a Facebook post that circulated widely among her American friends. She wears a mask outside at all times. She disinfects her outer garments as soon as she gets home. She carries a spray bottle of disinfectant with her and uses it to wipe down elevator buttons and door handles as she makes her way through the city. And the new rituals continue into bedtime.

"My nightly routine now includes spraying disinfectant over all switches, knobs, refrigerator doors, cabinets, windows, handles, etc., anywhere that my hands touched, before I turn in for the night," she writes. "It's time-consuming, but turning into a routine, like brushing your teeth."

Some of those measures may be difficult to implement in the U.S. Dr. Heisung Lee recalled that she sent a box of 100 masks to her brother in Seoul. But she said she would not feel comfortable wearing a mask in Virginia.

"They are looking at me," she said, and imagined people thinking, "'Oh she is Asian, so she must have coronavirus.'"

Keam, the lawmaker, said the lockdown in Virginia and around the world reminded him of Parasite, the South Korean-made film that won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Picture. A central element of the movie involved a man living an isolated life deep underground in a bunker — a way of life he compared to social distancing.

"Self-quarantined, by themselves ... having people feed you food through little holes just to survive this wrath of this virus," Keam said. "That's what Parasite's about."

Keam said South Koreans appear to have wrestled the coronavirus by reconciling to a new, more isolated mode of living. That experience offers a roadmap for Americans — if they are willing to read it.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5