How coronavirus affects me and my 105-year-old mother-in-law
Noel Mackey, a 73-year-old Irishman in Korea, on coronavirus and its daily challenges
Health workers wearing protective suits move a patient infected with the novel coronavirus Covid-19 disease with an isolation stretcher from an ambulance to a hospital in Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Kim Chul-Soo
I’ve lived in South Korea for more than 20 years. I’m 73 years old, originally from Co Kilkenny. Life has changed in the last few weeks since the coronavirus has struck.
My wife, Kyung Hee, and I had made plans to take her 105-year-old mother out for a special meal to celebrate the Lunar New Year on January 25th. Two days before we received a text message from the nursing home saying they were under lockdown, and for the foreseeable future no one was allowed out of or into the building. It was our first indication that the situation was precarious. Now, some seven weeks later, we wonder how Kyung Hee’s mother is faring and when we will be able to see her again. She is rather feeble, almost blind and very hard of hearing.
Right now all schools, universities, libraries and museums are closed. Many planned public events have either been cancelled or postponed, and people are advised to avoid large group meetings. For the first time in my experience the Catholic Church has cancelled all Masses, which I would normally regularly attend. Life is rather grim, with people having to live a confined lifestyle. I live in a small apartment on the seventh floor of a 20-floor building. Most people are afraid to go to the cinema, or large department stores, and being advised to not attend weddings or funerals. Many are either buying online, or shopping and eating locally. Every time I use public transport I hear announcements warning of the necessity of wearing face masks. Restaurants, buses and our apartment elevator supply us with hand sanitisers.
With the schools closed, parents are at their wits end trying to take care of their children. Normally they would send them to Hagwons or “cram schools” during holiday time, but they cannot do that now as they too are all closed. The wealthier people can find some alternative way to keep their children occupied by employing a private teacher.
Irish abroad: Do you live in an area affected by the coronavirus? (200 word max)
At the start of the outbreak of the coronavirus, adults and young students continued with their private classes. As the number of those infected grew, people became more cautious, and right now five of my seven students have cancelled classes indefinitely. One student I’ve been teaching for a while now used to have a distinct abhorrence for school and study in general, but is now bemoaning the fact that her school is closed. She is feeling lonely being at home all day and misses meeting her school friends.
In the neighbourhood where we live in a satellite city of Seoul, life continues as people struggle to deal with the virus as best they can. Almost everyone wears a face mask, and those that don’t are frowned upon. The biggest change I have noticed is the long queues outside pharmacies and the Hanaro mart each morning as people try to purchase face masks. The government has finally been forced to control the manufacturing and distribution of face masks in order to avoid speculators hoarding them and selling at an exorbitant price.
Since last Monday, each citizen has been limited to receiving two face masks per week. The local gym that I attend suddenly ruled that face masks were compulsory, and advised us to wear warm clothing as the heat was being turned down. I have decided to skip the Pilates class, as there can be up to 30 people in a rather confined space for it.
The convenience stores and small restaurants appear to be doing a better trade as people are reluctant to go to the big department stores and large restaurants where they fear they might contact the virus. While people are taking all the precautions necessary, there has been no panic buying or people living in fear.
A string of spring festivals, St Patrick’s Day events as well as concerts and theatrical performances have all been cancelled. While cinemas are still showing movies, very few people are taking the risk of attending, as social distancing is emphasised as being essential in the fight - or as the president calls it, the war against this virus. People are expressing anger at the members of the Shincheonji religious sect, as some 60 per cent of those confirmed to have the virus are believed to be linked to that church.
I have managed to remain half sane thanks to my gym staying open, which allows me to exercise every day. I have also been able to stay occupied with some translation work. My greatest worry is for my mother-in-law. I used to visit her every day to talk with her and help her do some basic exercises to keep her mobile. I fear for how she will feel with the lack of contact with her family.