Outbreak upends lives, routines for ambassadors posted in Seoul

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Outbreak upends lives, routines for ambassadors posted in Seoul


Left: Ambassador of Germany to Korea, Stephan Auer, is one of many diplomats working from home lately to practice social distancing. Right: Since the coronavirus outbreak worsened in Korea in February, the Embassy of Canada has been holding an emergency meeting every day to keep teams up to date and decide priorities for the day. In this photo, Canadian Ambassador Michael Danagher sits with staff members of the embassy. [EMBASSY OF CANADA IN KOREA]

When the number of new coronavirus patients in Korea jumped by hundreds every day in late February, daily life changed for most people, and diplomats were not immune.

“We are almost like a team in the military now,” said Canadian Ambassador to Korea Michael Danagher. “Practice, routine and protocol are important for our operation as we plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

The ambassador was speaking over the phone on Thursday as he described changes at the embassy since Covid-19 worsened in Korea in February.

Every morning, the embassy hosts an emergency meeting to share updates and decide priorities for the day.

“We have staff members from finance, operations, logistics, communications, liaison and other departments join the meeting, mostly virtually,” Danagher said. “We have issues that need to be addressed daily, some in excruciating detail.”

Except the essential staff needed for the day, the rest of the staff members are working from home.

There are over 20,000 Canadian citizens residing in Korea, not counting those holding dual citizenship of Korea and Canada, according to the Korea Immigration Service.

“New entry requirements by the Korean government, any messages from the government of Korea, any messages from the Embassy, they must all be shared with the Canadian community,” Danagher said.

“There are so many voices out there and part of what we have been doing in Korea is to be the one authoritative voice and provide comprehensive information on the changing situation for the Canadian citizens.”

The infection count in Korea reached 10,237 as of Saturday midnight, with 183 deaths. The outbreak has slowed considerably since February, but accelerated in other parts of the world - all contributing to a new and challenging workload for embassies in Seoul.

Just as the infection counts were climbing in Korea, hundreds of students from Mexico were arriving in the country in February for the start of a new school year in March.

“One particular group of concern for the Embassy is the more than 300 Mexican students who were arriving in Korea throughout February to begin exchange programs and other courses in Korean universities, before the postponement of the academic year opening was announced,” said Bruno Figueroa, ambassador of Mexico to Korea. “Fortunately, all of our students have followed our recommendations and are currently conducting their studies through online platforms set by their hosting institutions.”

The Korean government delayed the start of the year from early March to April 6. More recently, it said instead of opening classrooms, online classes will be held from April 9 for some grades in middle and high schools. Some universities have started holding classes online from March.

“Not a [single] Mexican resident in Korea has so far tested positive,” Figueroa said.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), among 10,237 infections in Korea, 741 were imported cases as of Saturday, of which 58 involved foreign citizens. They included at least 15 Americans, nine Chinese, eight British, two Germans, two Canadians and one Spanish, according to the KCDC.

Embassies and diplomatic delegations in Korea have also been relaying information between governments regarding medical and scientific research for Covid-19.

“European Commission public health experts in Brussels last week held a teleconference with their Korean counterparts at the KCDC and the Ministry of Health and Welfare; the European Union Delegation was involved as well,” Ambassador Michael Reiterer of the EU Delegation in Korea told the Korea JoongAng Daily on Wednesday.

“This enabled [the EU and Korea] to exchange information about the outbreak, measures for preventing the spread, and about clinical trials for potential pharmaceutical treatment of the virus.”

The EU delegation has posted in both English and Korean updated information on policies the EU is taking regarding the Covid-19 outbreak, including its recent mobilization of 140 million euros ($152 million) in funds to support vaccine research and treatment.

“We also assist in collecting information on Korean suppliers of medical devices, which are in high demand,” Reiterer said.

A total of 27 medical companies in Korea have been granted permission by the government on Wednesday to export Covid-19 test kits and equipment. One of the companies, Gencurix, expects to export somewhere from 1 million to 1.2 million test kits through April.

“We are receiving orders from all over the world,” said Park Je-min, an employee of Gencurix, a medical research company based in Guro District, western Seoul. “We have sent out samples to New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Laos and Panama, and will be sending more to Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Chile. We are in discussion with companies from the United States, Britain, Canada and India to possibly sell the test kits.”

How long the tests take vary by the company. Gencurix’s kits have a 1.5-hour running time, which accounts for only the time taken to expand the RNA extracted from a sample.

“Give or take, we think it’ll take around four hours total, from the moment the sample arrives at a lab until the test results are out,” Park said.

Another company among the 27, MiCo BioMed, said it has received orders for 150,000 test kits from Senegal and 100,000 kits from Brazil as of Thursday.

Diplomats emphasized that each country has its own medical and administrative system and that one model of containing the outbreak cannot necessarily be translated to another country.

Still, they added, it has been helpful to share examples from Korea to assess what has worked and not worked.

“The Czech Embassy in Seoul has been asked by the Czech Ministry of Health and other Czech institutions, including private initiatives, to acquire detailed information on some specific procedures that were proven very effective in fighting the virus in the Republic of Korea, such as the drive-through testing stations, the Self-Quarantine Safety Protection application, or methodology for releasing patients,” Gustav Slamecka, ambassador of the Czech Republic to Korea, told the Korea JoongAng Daily last week.

“A lot of information is also publicly available as the Korean government puts emphasis on transparency and openness,” he added. “The EU embassies approach the Korean authorities collectively, which saves their time as well. The EU Delegation has shown very good leadership and capabilities in information gathering and sharing.”

As more countries are closing their borders to foreigners in attempts to contain the outbreak, some have sought ways to keep them open in midst of containment efforts.

“The Czech Government has excluded [South] Korea from its list of risk countries last week and canceled a decision to ban flights with passengers from [South] Korea,” Slamecka said. “We hope that direct flights will resume as soon as the state of emergency in the Czech Republic is over.”

“To this date, Mexico has continued receiving citizens from Korea in our territory and our trade flows without any restrictions,” Figueroa said. “Also, with the support of Mexico’s national airline, Aeromexico, direct flights between Mexico City and Seoul will be reestablished as of April 8, after a brief interruption due to the decrease on the passenger flows.”

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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