Coronavirus panic hits South Korea

It’s all everyone is talking about these days: the coronavirus. How dangerous it could be, how to stop its spread, where to buy more masks, and how to keep the Chinese out. These have been the major concerns for Koreans over the past few weeks and the paranoia seems to have no end in sight. But how bad is the situation really, and should people be as worried as they are? 

What is now known as the coronavirus, or COVID-19, originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year after pneumonia cases were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December. Chinese authorities then proceeded to close a seafood market in Wuhan in early January after suspicions arose that animal products sold there could be the source of the virus. The first death from the virus was then announced on January 11. In the coming weeks , the virus spread to Thailand, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, France, and more. As of February 13, over 1,300 people have died from the virus in mainland China with over 60,000 infections recorded. 

As the virus started to spread into South Korea, residents, especially in Seoul, became increasingly nervous. Masks started running out and online sellers quickly jumped at the opportunity and to hike up mask and hand sanitizer prices. Reports soon started appearing about Chinese tourists buying masks in bulk to bring back to China. This, in turn, triggered a shortage of masks in Korea which forced locals to pay higher prices. 

This is how anti-China sentiment initially began to grow. The mask incident was soon followed by a number of restaurants placing signs forbidding Chinese (and foreigners in general) from entering. The situation reached a new height after a petition posted on the Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House or presidential residence) website demanding a ban against Chinese entering the country received more than 200,000 signatures, the necessary threshold to warrant a response by the government. As of February 13, the petition has received nearly 700,000 signatures. 

The effects of the virus have spread into politics as well, with several opposition politicians using the recent crisis to attack the Moon administration. Some conservative opposition lawmakers have sided with the petition signatories and publicly demanded Chinese be banned from entering the country for the time being. They are accusing Moon of being too soft on China and putting diplomatic relations before the lives of the Korean people. The Liberty Korea Party (LKP) on February 5 called for a “determined step” to prevent the spread of the virus in the country and a tougher stance against China. 

However, the situation is more complicated than a ban can resolve. First of all, Chinese make up the largest foreign population living in Korea, numbering at over 1 million. Many of them traveled to China over the Lunar New Year holidays to visit family and it’s impossible to quarantine them all out of fear they might possibly have the virus. Moreover, Chinese make up the biggest proportion of tourists traveling to Korea, with over 5 million visiting in 2019 (compared to e.g. 966,651 from the US). The economic impacts of such a ban would thus be felt significantly. 

Still, despite the economic impact, the South Korean government has taken steps to curb the inflow of Chinese nationals into the country. Earlier this month, the government banned all foreigners who visited Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, in the previous 14 days from entering the country. Several universities have also asked Chinese students to refrain from returning to campus for the time being to avoid a possible spread of the virus. Numerous exchange programs with Chinese universities have also been postponed. 

The government is thus trying to implement feasible policies to stop the spread of the virus while limiting the economic impact as much as possible. Not only is a Chinese quarantine prohibitively difficult and likely to negatively impact the Korean economy, but it’s also morally questionable. 

With rising accusations of racism against Chinese nationals, however, the government has been forced to respond. The Ministry of Education has now spoken out on the issue of Chinese students being unable to resume their studies in South Korea and vowed to take steps to support them. Education Minister Yoo Eun Hae said the ministry plans to roll out support measures, such as providing temporary accommodations and also called for efforts to prevent and stop hate speech towards Chinese students, saying “Chinese students enrolled in Korean students are our students, who are protected by the government and schools.”

The goodwill of the Moon government is already being felt by some Chinese students. One Chinese student studying in South Korea named Seo Amoon (her Korean name) said that she appreciates the actions the South Korean government is taking regarding the coronavirus. She even believes the ties between China and Korea will be even stronger after this difficult chapter is over. However, Seo does not deny that discrimination is indeed present in Korean society. She worries about being able to find accommodation near universities since many landlords won’t rent to Chinese if they suspect they recently came back from China. Some current Chinese tenants are even being asked to quarantine themselves for two weeks. She is also concerned over how this could negatively affect her job prospects in Korea. Despite this, though, she maintains that discrimination against Chinese in Korea isn’t nearly as bad as in, for example, Europe.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul. AFP

In fact, it’s not just Chinese suffering from discrimination. South Koreans traveling or studying abroad have also come forward with their own stories of experiencing racial discrimination over the past few weeks in connection with the virus. Many Koreans abroad in Europe, for example, have been confused with Chinese and targeted with racial slurs and sometimes even violence. Even famous figures like soccer player Son Heung Min was racially targeted online after coughing during an interview after a game. Discrimination against East Asians has gotten so bad in France that the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus) went viral. Racism against Asians thus seems to be spreading much faster than the actual virus itself.   

Many Koreans at home, although not suffering from racism in their own country, are facing other emotional hurdles. Besides the paranoia and anxiety that has quickly spread throughout society, other effects of the virus are also being felt. The virus outbreak has put a real dent in people’s social lives, with most people choosing to stay home instead of going out and meeting friends. Movie theaters are empty, graduation ceremonies have been canceled and people are choosing to order their meals via their phones instead of going outside. Many are getting bored and some even a bit depressed. 

Korean citizens who were evacuated from Wuhan have been put in quarantine facilities and their conditions are being closely monitored daily. The evacuees from the latest plane are currently under quarantine at a temporary shelter in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, for 14 days of monitoring until the incubation period of the virus ends. 

But how bad is the situation really? According to medical experts, the situation in Korea is not so serious and there is no need for panic. Nearly 3,000 people who entered Korea from China’s Wuhan city have already cleared the two-week monitoring period for possible coronavirus infection while the number of people being checked for COVID-19 under quarantine now number 670, down from 785 on Wednesday. Of the 28 reported cases in the country, seven have made a full recovery with the remaining 21 in stable condition

The government has called for calm and is assuring the public that the virus will soon be completely eliminated in the country. Medical experts are taking a similar position, arguing that the biggest obstacles to tackling the new disease are the dissemination of misinformation and fake news, panic and fear mongering, and the circulation of unscientific opinions. For now, those diagnosed with the virus can be treated with antiviral medications. 

It is unlikely a vaccine will appear any time soon, however. Vaccines against past similar viruses took between 15-18 months to develop, so we shouldn’t be expecting a miracle cure. Experts predict that the earliest it could come would be this autumn, but even that would be a rather optimistic scenario. The number of cases in Korea are still relatively low, however, compared to neighboring Japan (218 cases). Unless a sudden large influx of travelers who visited Wuhan recently enter the country, the number of cases in Korea is unlikely to rise at an alarming rate.

The best way to deal with the situation for now is to wait it out, wear masks, be as hygienic as possible, and be patient. 


Gabriela Bernal is a Korea analyst and current translator at The Daily NK. She holds degrees in international peace and security from King’s College London and human rights from Sciences Po Paris. She is also the founder of The Peninsula Report, a blog on Korean affairs. She has previously written for NOVAsia.

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1 Comment

  1. This is indeed a well writen article.On reading it brings a much needed relief to the mind and a better understanding of situations happening around us.May God help us all in finding a better understanding of humanity.

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