Life in South Korea is amazing
South Korea has so far been very successful in containing the corona pandemic. The high number of tests and the use of digital technology are considered to be important reasons for the sharp decline in the spread of the virus. Germany is also striving for both. Rainer Fried is the brother of our editor Nico Fried. He is currently working in the South Korean capital Seoul for an international musical production company. After two corona cases had been detected in the troop, Rainer Fried had to stay in quarantine in his hotel room for almost two weeks. He spoke to Nico Fried about his experiences and the Corona situation in South Korea.
SZ: Rainer, you entered South Korea on March 11th via Seoul Airport. That was almost six weeks ago. How were the controls on entry and what has changed in the meantime?
Rainer Fried: At that time the controls were not so strict. There were locks where cameras were used to measure fever, but they have been there since the last Sars epidemic a few years ago. In the meantime, that has completely changed: Not only is the temperature measured, a corona test is also carried out for every person entering the country within two days. All entrants have to download an app on their mobile phone that allows their stay to be tracked, and everyone is placed in compulsory quarantine for two weeks.
How do you experience the situation in Seoul at the moment?
My hotel and our theater are relatively central. The situation in the city is relatively normal for the most part, maybe a little less car traffic. The people from the offices in the city center meet quite relaxed during their lunch break on the street or in the courtyards and chat. Restaurants and many shops are open. The usual distance rules apply and disinfectants are available everywhere. Schools are still closed, however, which is a particularly hard turning point for a country like South Korea, where education is so important. And of course the crisis, with its global consequences, also hit the economy.
Is there a protective mask requirement?
There is a recommendation, but not a general obligation, except when entering public buildings. But most Koreans wear masks anyway. That's completely normal here. Foreigners are not forced to wear them, although many infections had been brought to South Korea from overseas in the past few weeks before controls were tightened. We have agreed in our company to wear masks out of respect for our Korean hosts. If they weren't so successful at keeping the epidemic under control, we couldn't be here.
Protective masks are a rare commodity in Germany and some of them are sewn by hand. Are the protective masks hard to come by in South Korea too?
Not at all. You can buy them on every corner, just like hand disinfectants. And at completely normal prices. This is not a problem. When I told my Korean friends about the toilet paper hamster purchases in Germany, they looked at me with big eyes. You couldn't believe it. You have never experienced anything like this here.
Are there special safety precautions for visiting your musical?
Yes. The health authorities make crystal clear guidelines. And we stick to every word of it.
How should one imagine visiting the musical?
Every spectator goes through a kind of disinfectant shower at the entrance to the theater. You keep your clothes on, of course, but you don't really get wet either. It's a very thin spray. Every visitor has to have their temperature measured, everyone has to wear a protective mask over their mouth and nose for the entire stay in the theater. And the data of every single viewer are registered. After two positive cases emerged in our troop, the authorities used this data to contact more than 8000 people who had visited the theater in the days before. As far as we know, no infection has been reported. The ensemble members, stagehands and other staff were tested. The show was suspended and we were all quarantined, around 120 people.
That meant: not leaving the hotel room for two weeks.
Yes. But the authorities and the hotel took care of everything, very friendly. And they leave nothing to chance. You get a package at the beginning of the quarantine. There are protective masks, hand disinfectants and a spray that I could use to disinfect anything that was brought into my room. There is also a clinical thermometer and a brochure with the regulations.
Does staff come into the room?
No. Food is placed in front of the door, an employee rings the bell and disappears. Then you open the door and bring the things in. Sometimes Korean cuisine, delicious and very healthy!
But no personal contact?
No. Only by phone.
What happens to the waste?
At the beginning of the quarantine you get a lot of plastic bags in which to collect the garbage. So I washed out the plastic bowls and other containers and stacked them on top of each other. It all stayed in my room. I was not allowed to bring anything that was brought into the room back to the door on my own. At the end of the quarantine, staff in protective suits came and took everything with them: the rubbish, all the bed linen and towels, everything that I might have touched. According to information I was emailed at the beginning, everything was burned. And the room was completely disinfected.
How was the quarantine controlled?
Twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., I had to take my temperature with the disposable thermometers. I entered the values both on a website and in the app. I should have stated if I had any symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, body aches or the like.
In Germany, South Korea is an example of a kind of complete monitoring via app, which scares some people. How does this work?
The quarantine app continuously registers where you are. If I had left my room to get some fresh air, the app would have registered it after three minutes at the latest and sent an alarm to me - but also to the authorities, and directly to the clerk responsible for me.
What was his name
I don't know, for me it only existed as code. But he would have known immediately if I had left the room without permission.
What if you had left your cell phone in the room and secretly gone out?
You shouldn't risk that. If I had been caught, the fine would not have been less than 7,000 euros and, as a foreigner, I would have been expelled immediately. Koreans can even face jail.
Isn't there a debate about privacy or the concern about too much surveillance?
As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of people believe that health and life are now about privacy.
What is the reason for this serenity?
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After the past few decades, one has a certain routine in dealing with such epidemics. Korea simply experienced and learned from Sars 2002 and Mers 2015. So we have now succeeded in getting the city of Daegu, where a great number of people in a religious community infected at the same time, under control. There were isolated restricted areas. But there is also a very high level of self-discipline among Koreans. I like to call this collective sanity. Contrary to the perception that is perhaps widespread in Germany, the success of the Koreans is by no means based on coercion and obedience.
In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute officially informs once a day about the development of the pandemic. Regional research is rather tedious and goes through the health authorities. How is it going in South Korea?
First via the mobile phone. Anyone with a Korean phone number will be alerted instantly with a text message if a new infection is detected in their area. These messages have absolute priority; their signal interrupts phone calls or takes precedence over any application that is currently open on the mobile phone. In between, there are also messages that remind you of the rules of conduct. A couple of days ago, about three weeks ago, the news was particularly high. Of course, this can also make you nervous if you have the impression that you are suddenly in a hot spot with a lot of infections - especially if you don't understand Korean. In the meantime, however, the news can also be read in English.
So a lot is based on sophisticated technology?
Yes, another example: There is a website called Coronamap.site. I can then zoom into any part of the country, practically on the street corner, to find out about the current situation. You can look up every single infection for the exact location in the city, where it took place and when. In retrospect, you can tell whether you were in the same restaurant or shop at the time in question. A color scale, which is measured at the time of the respective infection, also shows how dangerous the location is currently.
Your quarantine is over, this week you will start playing again. What was the first thing you did after you were allowed to leave the hotel room?
A little walk. Then I got myself a nice coffee. And then we had our first management meeting in a sunny backyard. We saw each other "for real" for the first time in two weeks, all healthy. That was a moving moment.
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