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Note #130: COVID-19 update (2020.3.26)

I thought I would post a short update on COVID-19 (or, the Disease Formerly Known as the Novel Coronavirus, aka 2019-nCov) as sort of a follow-up to my previous entry. This is not so much an update on COVID-19 itself—there are plenty of places to find information on the spread of the disease, and if you’re interested no doubt you’ve already found them—as it is an update on how things are going for me personally.

Just in case you aren’t aware of what’s been happening in Korea over the past week, let’s just say that things are not awesome. Last week there was an outbreak in the southern city of Daegu, and the number of infected has risen rapidly. The latest figure I saw for total confirmed cases in Korea is 977, but this data is already over 24 hours old now, so we’re no doubt well over a thousand by now. So far most of the infected are in Daegu, but we are seeing cases crop up elsewhere as people travel to and from the area; yesterday there were at least two confirmed cases in districts to the west of where I am, and today there were two cases in my district. I also read in the news that two family members of an administrative staffer at my university (SNU) tested positive for the disease, although the staffer him or herself tested negative.

That being said, no one I know has been directly affected by the disease yet. Despite the general panic that seems to be sweeping the nation, I’m not too worried. I am not in contact with a lot of people, and when I am I make sure to wash my hands with soap and water and avoid touching my face. In other words, I am doing everything I can to avoid infection, and there seems to be little point in worrying beyond that. Even if I should somehow be infected, COVID-19 doesn’t look like it is going to be anywhere as lethal as MERS or SARS were, and the vast majority of the deaths so far have been among the elderly and those with respiratory conditions. Obviously, the ideal outcome would be to avoid infection, but even should I catch the virus I am pretty confident I will be able to survive it. Still, no need to press my luck, so I will remain cautious and conscientious.

While I haven’t yet been directly affected by the disease, pretty much everyone I know has been indirectly affected. As I mentioned in my previous post, conferences and other meetings are all uniformly being canceled. Since then, SNU also decided to push back the start of the semester two weeks. Normally we would start at the beginning of March, but now we will be starting in the middle of the month. I am also teaching a separate translation class at the Literature Translation Institute, and I was informed yesterday that this was going to be delayed by two weeks as well. This has thrown quite a monkey wrench in my scheduling, to say the least.

In all likelihood, the measures being taken to contain the disease are going to affect me for more negatively than the disease itself. For instance, the decision to delay the start of the semester by two weeks was made well before the Daegu outbreak. If things get out of hand, are we going to just go ahead as planned, or will there be more delays? I don’t see how there could be more delays, to be honest, without canceling the entire semester, and I can’t imagine that happening. I did get a notification from the school today that, depending on how the situation develops, they might consider “remote classes.” I’ve never done anything like that before, and I can’t imagine how it could possibly be a proper substitute for having students right there in class.

I’m no epidemiologist, but I honestly think we are beyond the possibility of containment at this point. The current response to a reported case is to just shut everything in the area down, but how much longer will such a strategy be viable (if it is even still viable now)? At a certain point we are going to have to admit that containment has failed and move into a prevention and treatment phase. That is, we may just get on with our lives with the understanding that a lot of people are going to get sick, and that further attempts at containment would do little more than stifle the economy and make people’s lives miserable.

Another thing I am worried about is a conference I am supposed to be attending in the States in April. If things get worse here, will I actually be able to travel to the US? A number of countries have already banned travel to and from Korea, and if things get worse I would not be surprised if further travel restrictions went into effect—a recent poll in the US, for exampe, showed that 80% of respondents were in favor of a travel ban to and from countries affected by the virus. I obviously don’t think this is a good idea, but I don’t make the decisions. In fact, if COVID-19 has shown me anything, it is how little control I have over what goes on around me.

So, at the moment, I’m just waiting to see what happens. All I can do is hope for the best, even as I prepare for the worst. Wherever you may be, stay healthy—and don’t forget to wash your hands!

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