Opinion: After seeing what South Korea is doing to stop the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. seems unprepared. Can it step up?

Marissa Moss spent two weeks touring schools and is now back in Berkeley. During her self-imposed quarantine, she is wondering why more precautions aren’t being taken.

I recently returned from two weeks in Japan and Korea. I was there to see my husband, posted as a therapist at the US base in Seoul and was doing author visits in schools while I was in the region (I write children’s books and give writing workshops). I had thought about canceling as the coronavirus was just heating up when I left, but numbers were still low outside of China, so even though I have asthma, making me high risk, I decided to go, armed with antiseptic wipes and plenty of hand sanitizer. Besides, I hadn’t seen my husband in a couple of months.

In both Tokyo and Seoul airports, there was already screening in place, separate quarantine lines set up for anyone arriving from China and careful screening at passport control (my passport was scrutinized to be sure I hadn’t indeed been in China in the past 14 days as I claimed). Everyone working in the airport wore masks and large bottles of hand sanitizer were everywhere. In the cities of Seoul and Tokyo, it was the same, with hand sanitizer set out at the entrance to every mall and most shops. Since I was careful about not touching public surfaces – or my face – and washed my hands constantly, I felt safe.

Then the breakout in Daegu happened, the third-largest city in South Korea, where a cult urged its members to come to services without masks, even when sick. In those crowded conditions, the virus spread quickly with numbers doubling every day. I still wasn’t worried about getting sick – Daegu is pretty far from Seoul— but I was concerned my author visits would be canceled.

I was relieved when I finished my last author visit, on Friday, Feb 21, feeling lucky since the librarian told me all intramural activities had been canceled and she thought the next week would see all within-school assemblies canceled, so I’d just squeaked by. In fact, on Monday, Korea closed all international schools, having lessons continue online instead.

My new worry was that the U.S. would cancel all flights from South Korea or enforce a quarantine on people arriving from there. Israel had just banned all such flights. And the US army base was tightening protocols, canceling all travel in and out of Korea. The base is large, with 13 gates, but the day after I left, they closed all but two with temperature screening and questioning for everyone coming in. What used to be a matter of simply showing your pass is now time-consuming, with it sometimes taking hours to get through because of the line. All meetings are canceled. Even the on-base restaurants are shortening hours and have taken away all buffets. They’re encouraging people to eat at home if they can, not in social situations.

I arrived at SFO, expecting the same level of screening as in Tokyo and Seoul. Instead, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Although I had been in Seoul, not Daegu, since soldiers and staff travel freely and often between the U.S. bases and two people at the base in Daegu had the virus, I felt like the responsible thing to do would be to self-quarantine. So despite all the precautions I’d taken and the fact I have no symptoms, I’m keeping a wide berth from people. I asked my doctor if I could be tested, but she told me there were no tests available in California (true at the time and even now, since I’m symptom-free, I wouldn’t be tested). If I have to go out, I wear a mask and gloves, but mostly I’m home, which isn’t such a burden since, as a writer, that’s where I usually am anyway. But I have to say my house is really scrubbed now, with closets that long-needed organizing finely straightened up and windows freshly washed.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, there’s an army of people disinfecting the markets and vast subway system every day. They’re testing in 500 centers. Would we be able to do the same? We seem woefully unprepared in terms of what the government can and should do in these situations, from the federal level on down. Closing schools seems like an empty gesture since kids aren’t getting this virus – or if they are, it’s mild. The people who are dying are older, especially men. Those who smoke, have heart conditions or diabetes are especially vulnerable. We need to focus on senior living centers because that’s where this virus will hit hardest. Banning flights from certain countries doesn’t make sense anymore. The virus is already here, among us. The question is how will we face it.

Marissa Moss is a children's book author.