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The Bubble has Burst: COVID-19 and Americans in Korea

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

It was showtime. The school bell had rung, the students had left their classrooms, and the Humphreys High School gym was full of athletes and performers ready to kick off the 2020 Far East Basketball Tournament. I was part of the drum line, and we were set to close out the ceremony with a bang (get it? cuz drums?), performing alongside the Step Team. It was going to be epic, and I couldn't wait to get out on the court and burst some eardrums.

My current home, Camp Humphreys, South Korea, is the largest Army installation in South Korea and the entire Pacific. It was also the 2020 location for the Far East boys basketball tournament, which is DoDEA Pacific's equivalent to a State Championship, and high school teams had come from all over East Asia to compete this February.

The gym was buzzing with excitement as I took a short walk away from my drum to chat with some friends. Sticks in hand, I strolled a lap around the gym with my fellow drummer to finalize some last minute details. Just then, the tournament coordinator came into the gym, walking with a purpose toward where the coaches and players were assembled. "I'm gonna need you guys to stand down," she said to us as she passed.

The garrison commander and district superintendent had been spotted in the halls, and all of the coaches began to make their way to the library for an unexpected meeting. Whatever this was about, it couldn't be good.

Half an hour later, the ceremony had still not started. Rumors began to circle the gym, and the reason behind the impromptu coach's meeting soon became clear: coronavirus.

COVID-19 had been circulating throughout the country in January and February, with Korea being one of the first places to become affected by the virus, but up to this point it hadn't affected life on military bases much. Although all of the international schools had cancelled school and all events, Department of Defense schools had yet to take any action.

The previous day, however, a cluster of coronavirus cases had emerged in the city of Daegu, right next to two army installations. The garrison down there had placed the posts on lockdown...but only after the Daegu basketball team had arrived at Humphreys for the tournament.

After much anticipation, the coaches finally emerged from the library, frowning. The rest of the tournament was cancelled. Everyone needed to leave the school. Immediately.

Shock filled the gym, with everyone asking the same question: Why? After all, the tournament had actually started in the morning, with pool play games occurring throughout the day. But the few cases in Daegu had transformed into dozens of cases just overnight, leading officials to quarantine the players and send the rest home.

What makes COVID-19 different from other viruses is that we don't really know that much about it. Governments may put out authoritative instructions that sound like solid information, but the reality is that there are so many unknowns when it comes to how it spreads. One thing is for certain, though: it's highly contagious. Within the next few weeks, Korea's number of cases exploded.

The general atmosphere at school the next day was tense. "If Daegu potentially brought the coronavirus here, then why are we still having school?" people wondered. Many saw our presence on campus as the administration’s lack of concern for student safety.

The following Monday, we went to school as usual. This last week of February would be the last time we stepped foot in the building. Beginning Tuesday, garrison announced that the schools would be closed indefinitely, and that we would begin online assignments on Wednesday.

At first, life still seemed normal. For the first couple of weeks, everyone got into the rhythm of distance learning and carried on everything else as usual. I had friends over to play board games, people would still hang out at the PX, and my mom would still go to the commissary. Perhaps the only differences were the absence of school-related activities and the increased security measures at the gate (basically they took everyone's temperature and asked if you had been to a "hot spot").

That isn’t to say that people didn’t struggle. I know many students miss the social aspect of school and are upset about events being cancelled. And, let’s face it, online school can be downright confusing sometimes.

But to be completely honest, I was enjoying myself. My teachers weren't giving that much work, so I was able to do stuff I enjoyed. This was such a big change from when school was in session, where I barely had enough time to do anything.

I kept myself busy. I wrote some music, watched movies, read some books, co-founded a website called Bloom... I even got hooked on opera when the Metropolitan Opera in NYC started streaming free shows EVERY DAY (I've watched 15 so far and I'm addicted). I felt like I had rediscovered my purpose in life.

MEANWHILE, people in the States somehow still thought coronavirus wasn't that big of a deal. It was quite interesting to observe the general attitude shift in the U.S. from OUTSIDE my home country.

As the pandemic spread, the contrasts between Western and Eastern nations were magnified: while most of Korea immediately closed businesses and began to stay inside, many Americans continued to question the reality of the coronavirus and carry on with life as usual. This can be explained by Eastern ideas of protecting the larger group by sacrificing individual liberties, while the West generally tries to better the nation as a whole through protecting individual rights.

(I'm not going to comment on which of those attitudes is better for this situation, although you can take a look at the death tolls yourself if you're curious.)

Reading through the news and social media posts from the U.S., I found it quite baffling how some people refused to acknowledge the inevitable outbreak of disease that would soon strike, given the lack of protective measures being enacted.

After nearly a month without school, I finally began to get messages from stateside friends saying that school had been cancelled. Sports were put on hold, events were discarded, and livelihoods were disrupted. The mighty United States of America was brought to a grinding halt by a virus.

Let me just say that here in Korea, events have been cancelled since February. I made it into two honor bands, one in Seoul and one in Japan, which were both cancelled. The seniors here never got to go to their last Far East tournament, prom, band concerts, and other events that define high school.

But when the U.S. shut down, it was like we weren't alone anymore. Suddenly people in the states cared about what had happened here, asking for advice and wanting to know how we were doing. A big change from before, when no one seemed to care. We were all in the same boat now.

Yet even though we were now undergoing similar challenges, the coronavirus responses at Camp Humphreys and in the U.S. couldn't have been more different.

For one thing, we relied on the Korean government's testing and control system, which has proven to be highly effective. There was an established procedure for getting tested and being quarantined, as well as CCTV everywhere to trace the movements of those carrying the virus. As a result, those who had been in the same place as COVID patients were instantly alerted and instructed to self quarantine.

Our garrison leadership also launched a daily Facebook live show (now fondly referred to by Humphreys residents as "The Mike and Tony Show") to transparently share everything they knew with the community and reassure the population.

The military community down at Daegu even had a moment of pride when President Trump posted a tweet with “#KillTheVirus”, a hashtag that had originated there during the initial outbreak.

Living on post, it seemed like we were in a protective "bubble" of sorts. Access to Camp Humphreys was tightly regulated, meaning we could live somewhat normal lives on the installation. Up until late March, we felt safe. Looking across the pond at the States, it seemed like complete chaos.

But that all changed once a contractor tested positive for the virus after going in to work on post, eventually spreading it to several more people. Immediately, tighter restrictions were imposed, masks were required, and many on-post establishments closed their doors. Our precious bubble of protection had been popped.

Thanks to the resilience of Korea and the military community here, the number of cases has gone down. Throughout this past week, Korea has had several days with ZERO new cases transmitted locally. Our on post restrictions are finally being eased, and our school district is the only DoDEA district that could possibly reopen before the school year is over.

What can the rest of the world learn from Korea and Camp Humphreys?

For one thing, THERE IS AN END IN SIGHT. It is possible to have no new cases in one day, and it is possible for people to get back to somewhat normal lives. If you get nothing else out of this article, have hope that COVID-19 can be beaten and that our communities can be strengthened through these times.

I felt pride seeing our families come together to sew masks for everyone on post. I felt pride seeing Korea go from most cases in the world to 38th in the rankings. I felt pride to see my friends and neighbors making sacrifices for the good of their community.

But within this glimmer of light lies a cautionary tale. Yes, Korea has successfully contained the virus, but we also began to shut everything down months before other countries did. Early mass testing led to many people being treated early and recovering. As a result, Korea’s death rate is significantly lower than other countries. This means that beating the virus takes sacrifice.

If complacency kicks in and people begin to think they’re safe, it’s all too easy for another outbreak to occur. New cases arose here when people tried to go back to normal, and cases will continue to spread as long as there is one person in the population walking around with the virus.

As military kids, we’re accustomed to sacrifice for the good of others. While many believe that stay-at-home orders are suppressing their freedoms, they’re actually making sure that we keep the most vulnerable members of our community safe. It’s important that we don’t give up social distancing too early, otherwise life could never return to normal. It’s also important to remember that by making sacrifices, we’re helping to make the world a healthier place. Use this time we’ve been given for good.

Stay informed. Stay connected. Stay strong. We can get through this if we work together.


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