Fed up with restrictions
The author is the economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On Tuesday morning as I left my house for work, I realized the streets were empty compared to last week. The social distancing level for the greater Seoul area had been elevated to Level 2.5 to curb the recent uptick in coronavirus cases. As I stepped inside the nearest subway station, however, I realized it looked no different from Level 2. Like before, I had to squeeze myself through the door of the car. I tried not to come in physical contact with any other commuters, but it was impossible. I hunched my shoulders and curled my back as more people flooded in. I soon felt sweat dripping down my spine.
Later, I got off to transfer. “Whew!” I said with a deep sigh as I walked toward a different subway line. As the subway car doors opened, swarms of people came rushing out. I stepped in, and after a few more stops, I was finally able to sit down. But then I paused for a split second, asking myself whether it was worth being exposed to a higher risk of virus transmission. I eventually gave in. The woman and man on each of my side were clearly wary about their thick coats brushing against mine.
Going to work on the first day of Level 2.5 social distancing measures felt no different from the previous days. People without the option to work from home are obviously unable to socially distance, especially if they commute by subway, where keeping 30 centimeters (12 inches) apart from others is very difficult — if not impossible — during rush hour. Yet they do whatever they can within their power to keep safe, such as refraining from physically contacting others, using hand sanitizer and wearing face masks.
Many parents of high school seniors who took their college entrance exams last week were extra careful this year, canceling all nonessential social outings for several months so as not to catch the virus and affect their kids at home. Office workers had to call off all after-work get-togethers, while some companies entirely banned their employees from eating lunch together. With gyms temporarily shut, people had to rely on home workouts. Everyone built walls against their friends and colleagues in their own way during a months-long battle against the pandemic, hoping a single mask and some distance would keep them safe.
But with the battle raging on for 11 months now, everyone is tired. In the early stages of Korea’s outbreak in February, the spread was slow. The government praised the public’s compliance with its preventive measures, hailing it as the “K-quarantine” model. Convinced they could fend off the virus, people were full of hope. But that was too good to be true. Daily infections have continued to rise and fall ever since.
When cases were down, the government encouraged people to go out and spend money. When cases went up, the government launched various social distancing campaigns demanding people not leave their homes. The on-and-off rules and restrictions have only amplified anxiety in local society and caused the virus to spread to all corners, in stark contrast to Taiwan, which has maintained zero new cases per day for most of the past few months thanks to the government’s stringent preventive measures.
Living in Korea during the pandemic, it is difficult to predict what tomorrow may look like or the day after. Each time infections rise, the government announces new restrictions on local businesses, forcing some to close. As the low-income bracket has been forced to bear the brunt, small businesses went bankrupt. With the rules usually lasting two weeks to three months, many stores in major shopping districts such as Myeong-dong, central Seoul, have gone out of business, and customers have clamored for refunds from fitness centers and hagwon (private cram schools).
The government often claims it considers the working class first and foremost when adjusting social distancing levels. Yet it is very ironic to see the very people they promised to protect suffer the most. The government can no longer hide behind the excuse that it is new to the pandemic.
Both the public and economy are worn out. Rolling out unpredictable measures is another form of tyranny.