Last December, I spent a few weeks in S. Korea for research. While there, I was introduced to a young man, Seung Ki (Daniel) Min, who is a junior at an international high school in Seoul. He is eager to become an economist, and is building a rather impressive portfolio of skills and interests. As S. Korea has had one of the best records in dealing with the pandemic, I asked if he would like to write a piece for the blog about how 2020 has affected him. He’s written this interesting perspective:

My grandmother once told me casually, “you don’t know what I went through at your age.” Knowing the turmoil years of my grandmother– the colonial period and the Korean War–I dare not to challenge her. Living through golden days of economic growth and peaceful times in Korea, I wondered what life-threatening story I could tell to my grandkids. Now, the once in a hundred years’ COVID-19 pandemic that is happening, puts me in a position to say, “you do not know what I went through in your age”. 

As a rising senior high school student, COVID-19 has brought me unique experiences that I will not forget for the rest of my life. Wearing a mask and taking classes online were the easiest parts of this volatile period. I have had to cancel summer programs I had planned and waited for a year, and I took the AP exams at 3 AM, which was then still a luxury and opportunity given to a few, since most of the AP exams were canceled – and Korea was the internet powerhouse that made it possible. Going through the past few months, I have learned things I could not have learned without COVID-19. I know, what I observe will be a limited view of the pandemic. Being an 18-year-old, middle-upper class, high school senior, Korean boy, still it has provided me an opportunity to look back at the global pandemic and how it impacted me and my neighbors. Here are my three cents. 

First, I learned that life goes on: after all, tomorrow is another day.  Normally, I would wake up at 6:50 am to catch the school bus, but the transition to online classes allowed me to sleep until 7:50 am, one of the very few merits that COVID-19 offered to me. Class-wise, teachers had us unmute our microphones and angle our cameras to prevent cheating during tests or replace exams with projects. Personally, my high school education was little altered by the pandemic. I felt less pressured as attendance to classes became non-mandatory two weeks before our Advanced Placement (AP) Exams. Because the AP tests were administered near 3 AM in Eastern countries, my school counsellor was considerate in helping us adjust our sleep schedules prior. As a night owl, I was personally pleased that I did not have to attend classes and could take my AP tests in my everyday lifestyle. Considering that students took classes in open ground during the Korean War, taking online classes may have been a luxury.

Second, I learned that we, humans are not as rational as I wished. As a student who wants to be an economist, I thought people would behave rationally and will not do harmful things during the pandemic. This was not the case.  As we are aware, South Korea was one of the first epicenters of COVID-19 during mid-February. The first wave in South Korea was exacerbated as the Shincheonji church, a pseudo-Christian branch, held a large meeting in Daegu. Although there were over 6,000 confirmed cases in Daegu alone in mid-February, with 5,200 patients related to the cult, the church refused to reveal its followers’ information. Korea is experiencing a second wave due to unrestricted religious activities and unregulated protests.

Third, each country becoming nationalistic amidst this crisis gave the impression that nationalism holds a lot of shortcomings during such a crisis. In particular, while many other countries maintained a no-entry policy to the Chinese as the pandemic spread rapidly in the Wuhan province, South Korea did not amend its immigration policies. Although I was aware that China and South Korea maintain a close economic partnership, it was rather ironic that the Chinese government later banned Koreans from entering the country. Of course, I had a stance that closing borders between countries entirely would elicit more harms. During the summer, I conducted economic research on how a pandemic would affect people psychologically and economically due to stay-at-home- policies. I learned that the stay-at-home policy has damaged the psychological and financial well-being of the general population, specifically reducing global economic activity and affecting the minds of health care workers. In order for recovery, I concluded that trade between health services between nations and more policies regarding each sector should be invested in and established. Thus, I found that countries stopping trade due to nationalism was not a good way to protect their health and financial sectors.

                      Galvanizing myself amidst this time of uncertainty, I have no doubt experienced an unconventional change in my lifestyle in which wearing masks and virtual platforms have become natural aspects. My endeavors during this crisis as a rising senior are probably not unique, but those stories I would share with the next generations.

Cover photo: HOPE by Robert Indiana, Photographed in Seoul Dec 2019, Brooks A. Kaiser