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How COVID-19 has challenged Human Decency

By Rebecca Zhong

The gentle narration of my Audible novel came to an abrupt halt with the frantic vibrating of the phone in my pocket. I opened it to a clinical looking flurry of Korean characters under the ‘Emergency alert’ notification. I paused for a moment to take in those around me. One by one commuters began to remove their phones from their pockets. I quickly screenshot the message and pasted it into google translate. The message read, “Seodaemun-gu, tested positive. Was on line 9 February 20th, at approximately 12p.m.” I stopped walking. The busy Dangsan station that had seemed to collectively pause together a moment before had now resumed back to normal. I remained frozen. Fixated on the clumsy translation before me.

A businessman who was also staring at his phone screen was forced to an abrupt halt when he almost knocked into my back. He gave a short, disgruntled cough, muffled behind his white surgical mask. You can’t exactly just stop walking in the middle of Dangsan station but I had. He manoeuvred around me with noticeable exaggeration. I offered up a distressed “mianhamnida.” The apology only met a dismissive wave and a lack of eye contact. But just as quickly as I became his headache, he was gone, and I was forgotten.

I gave a quick check of the time, shoved the phone back into my pocket, and continued to hurry towards my coming train. After I skirted between the waiting passengers at the end of the platform, I quickly checked my phone again. Five minutes had passed since I received the initial alert, and since then two new alerts had followed.

The train threw open its doors and deposited its inside to battle against a keen crowd of desperate commuters. I was swept up, surrounded, drowning in the sea of bodies. Line nine is one of the most frequented metros in Seoul. Being one of few express metros to Gangnam, the business capital of Seoul, personal space is always compromised during peak hours. The white surgical masks that covered the commuters' faces pushed and pulled with the heavy breath of those around me, and my lack of mask now seemed glaringly naïve. It’s February 22nd and as I stepped onto Line 9, just as I had done every day for the past several months, for the first time things felt different.

On January 20th, South Korea received its first case of COVID-19. Emergency alerts were sent to Korean sim holders nationwide, and the population was notified of the route taken by those who were tested positive. In the following weeks, these emergency alerts would become a regular interruption to daily life. Less than a month later, a nine-story Church in Daegu would be named the Korean petri dish for COVID-19. Patient 31, a 61-year-old woman, was showing symptoms of the virus. However, she refused to skip Sunday service, and would instead press her finger into a digital scanner granting her entrance into “Shincheonji Church of Jesus.” Over the course of the twohour service, she would be crammed shoulder to shoulder with a thousand others. By the end of February, patient 31 was believed to have been linked to three fifths of the country’s 3,736 cases recorded at that time.

Living in South Korea as a Chinese in the wake of COVID-19 proved to be both an uncomfortable and learning experience. After strangers caught a glimpse of my appearance, I would witness foreigners and locals alike swiftly navigate around me. Crowded metros now made room for me, not out of politeness, but out of fear. The xenophobia compounded with general fears of COVID-19 had heightened everyone’s senses, and as an outcome, I was deemed hyper visible. This was a shared experience among many of my Chinese friends. I heard stories about boomers quickly wrapping their scarves around their mouths when my friends would walk past. Misinformation and sentiments of Chinese food being dirty had resurfaced to alarming degrees, with many of my family friends' restaurants taking a toll. I wanted to be the person who heralded reason and empathy in a world of panic and racism, however I found myself caught in the hysteria of racism myself. In department stores I would turn my head when I heard Cantonese or Mandarin being spoken. I would purposefully avoid duty free stores notorious for being popular amongst Chinese tourists. While I knew these unconscious tendencies had no malicious intent, I found it difficult to separate myself from the very behaviour that attacked and marginalised those closest to me on a regular basis. When we see a pandemic, and especially one that has been publicised to this extent, it is easy to get caught up in the hysteria of it all.

There are people who are misinformed, and people who are already racist and use it as an excuse. In times like this it becomes increasingly difficult to discern a clear line on what these differences are.

On March 6th I decided to pack up my bags after living in Korea for eight months. Three days before arriving in New Zealand, I was told that all people entering from South Korea were required to be in self isolation for two weeks. At the time of my arrival, COVID-19 was still being taken quite lightly by the general public, with only four positive cases being recorded. The measures imposed for those entering were mostly precautionary. Despite the minor situation at the time, I was still taken back by the nonchalant attitudes I had seen towards the virus.

Sentiments about the virus being unimportant because of the low mortality rate was widespread amongst youth. However, if we treat COVID-19 like the flu, go about our business, and let the virus take its course we would see an exponential rise in the number of cases over the next few weeks. A study conducted by Imperial College showed that if we took the same approach to COVID-19 as we do to the flu, we can expect 4-8% of all Americans aged over 70 to die. An increase in COVID-19 cases would force our health sector into overdrive and compromise the system’s ability to offer compassionate and thorough care to those most vulnerable. And while this information has been communicated with care during my time in self-isolation, it still seems like the thin veneer of human decency has slipped during the wake of this pandemic.

By the time I was released from self-isolation on March 20th, social distancing had become highly encouraged to the public. Despite wanting to visit my favourite restaurants, bars and cafes for the first time in months, I understood the importance of lessening my contact with others in order to flatten the curve. Many other cities and states around the world had been forced into lockdown, and with the additional time spent at home, I began to notice a definitive shift in how people were responding to the virus globally. It seems like it is a human tendency to derive both a point and moral lesson from every downfall we may encounter in life. People have used COVID-19 as a case study to highlight humanity's lack of empathy and compassion towards one another. Our initial response to a pandemic is through racism, hate crimes, microaggressions and individual survival, as opposed to solidarity and understanding. And while this time is invaluable as it allows us to be reflective on our individual positionality and privilege, I cannot help but think that the worst behaviour we have seen during this pandemic will continue to arise in future cases of distress and chaos. Our propensity to moralise can be seen as a means to comfort ourselves in the midst of a public problem. Moral lessons are fundamental towards the growth and development of humanity. Historically pandemics have enabled us to imagine the world anew and break away from the past. However, if we simply use this as a source of comfort rather than a means to alleviate future distress, we are at fault once again.


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