SEOUL, South Korea – The pandemic has presented us all with choices we never had to make. For me, one of them was to decide whether it was safe enough to visit my parents here or not to see them at all this year. But as the weeks stretched into months, I decided it was worth taking a chance.
Many countries have strict restrictions on American visitors, and many require them to be in quarantine for two weeks. South Korea was no exception: I was told to download an app at the airport upon arrival and quarantine myself for two weeks.
But that was just the beginning. It wasn’t until I arrived that I realized the extent of the government’s program to contain the virus.
At the international terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York, which is usually full of people driving to destinations around the world, everything was quiet. The check-in desks were empty and the floors looked like they had been polished minutes ago.
The check-in assistant was friendly and the process went smoothly until she handed me a piece of paper that I had to sign to confirm that upon arrival I would be quarantined in a government facility for 14 days. I explained to the airline agent that I had planned to stay with my parents.
The agent informed me that I would be taken directly from the airport in Korea to the state facility with no evidence that my parents lived in Seoul. I called my parents in a panic even though it was 2am there. Fortunately, a few years ago they had the required shapes lying around. They sent me a screenshot of the document which I hoped would be enough when I landed.
LANDING IN KOREA
Korean Air, like many other US airlines, had seats distributed throughout the aircraft in order to comply with social distancing protocols. While on the plane, I was given four pages of forms to fill out, each containing three different travel declaration forms and an arrival card instead of the usual single form.
When I landed at Incheon Airport, everything felt sterile. Video walls that were once lined with “Welcome to Korea” ads have been replaced with videos of sharks dancing, advising people on how to stay clean and safe during the pandemic. It seemed like I had traveled on the only plane that had arrived at the terminal.
The first desk we passed when walking through the terminal that we would normally bypass had a thermal sensor camera mounted. I was stopped and asked a few questions and had my temperature checked.
I gave my US cell phone number but was told to give a Korean one. I crossed out mine and replaced it with my mother’s cell phone number. They meticulously examined the details I wrote down on all of my forms.
At the next checkpoint I was told to download the Korean government’s Covid-19 app called Self-Quarantine Safety Protection. It had a tracking device and I had to record my temperature and any symptoms twice a day. The assistant hovered over me, watching me install the app on my iPhone to make sure I had alerts enabled and the app was running at all times.
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At the third checkpoint, I handed over my passport and travel documents before another employee confirmed that my app had indeed downloaded properly. They then called the Korean number I had written down earlier to confirm that it was working.
I then received three more pages of forms to fill out before staff checked the information at two more checkpoints. This will help determine if travelers need to be quarantined. Failure to do so could result in a prison sentence of up to a year or fines of up to 10 million won (nearly $ 9,000), according to the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
One of the last checkpoints before baggage claim was to check my parents’ information so I could stay with them. Due to the documents that I hastily collected shortly before my flight, with only a screenshot of a piece of paper from years ago, I would be exempt from quarantine. If the information could not be verified, I was taken straight from the airport to a hotel and told not to leave for two weeks.
Finally I thought I was on the other side. I was jet lagged and wanted to see my parents and go home. But there would be one more line. Visitors usually need to take a certified taxi or shuttle bus to Seoul.
But my parents would drive me home, which would mean giving more information, this time giving my father’s cell phone number and our home address.
STAY IN KOREA
The next morning I had to do a Covid-19 test. Regardless of whether you are a foreigner or a Korean citizen, the tests are accessible and free of charge. While waiting for my turn to come, I heard a group of men say they had received a case warning at a wedding they attended. It was amazing to see this contact tracing that we are all so familiar with in real time.
Later that night, my mother received a text from the local agency saying that my test was negative. I would also be assigned a case agent who would be my contact person during my stay.
The next day, a bag arrived from the local authority containing a thermometer, a pack of disposable masks, two types of hand sanitizer, and a garbage bag. During the two weeks of my quarantine, I had to put my trash in the government-mandated bag. I was told it would be picked up at the end of my stay.
On the seventh day of quarantine, my mother received another call from my appointed Covid-19 contact. You wanted to talk to me. I was asked to confirm that I was really myself before asking some questions and offering mental health services in case I needed one.
Whenever a new case came up in a neighboring city, my iPhone would ping with a new notification, the same sounds that phones make when there is an Amber Alert in the US. I would get two or three of these notifications almost every day.
The day before my flight back to the US, my local contact wanted to confirm my flight details. She also reminded us that I would have to take these government-appointed taxis to the airport even though I was able to ride with my parents after I landed. The taxis were carefully sterilized after each trip.
The ability to walk around an airport felt liberating after two weeks inside. Life was back to normal – people sat and ate at tables that were cordoned off to keep us socially distant. We shared elevators. The shops were open but there was little pedestrian traffic.
LANDING BACK HOME
It is hard to imagine that the US can implement all of the measures used in South Korea. Americans were reluctant to devote their privacy and freedom to security and control requirements. South Korean culture is more conservative, a view more prevalent in Asian cultures, with an emphasis on respecting the elderly, which may be due to how people view authority.
On my plane home, I received a brochure from the CDC. “Stop the spread of Covid-19: do your part. Stay home 14 days after your trip. Monitor your health. “
That landed me back at JFK. No paperwork, no app, no temperature control. I picked up an Uber booked from my iPhone and went home.