What I Saw in South Korea
Walking to school in the morning past security guards shoveling dead birds off the playground.
That’s an image I’ll never forget.
I was 11 years old, living with my family in Baku, Azerbaijan. We were there because my dad worked for an oil company. We lived in a small expat community on the outskirts of Baku. We lived within walking distance to school and surrounded by other expat friends. When you stayed in the compound walls it felt just like any other small town in America.
So, when we left our neighborhood it was a big deal. Weekend outings to the international grocery store, to the bootleg DVD store, and walking around the old city center. We got to see the real Baku. And I remember bits of it, for sure. But that day with the dead birds … I mean, how could I forget that?
This was in 2006, and as some of you reading this might remember there was a terrible outbreak of avian influenza — also known as bird flu — around that time.
Azerbaijan had it bad.
It was the first time Azerbaijan had such an outbreak, and they were not the most prepared. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that suddenly poultry was off the menu, our medicine cabinets were stocked with Tamiflu, and birds started dropping from the sky. My parents explained a little bit about it to me, and I tried my best to understand. That stuff — infectious, global diseases that impact millions and millions of people — it’s a bit much for a 11-year-old girl to wrap her head around, right?
But I remember how it piqued my interest and, even though it was a bit scary, something about it stuck in my brain for a long, long time.
In high school back in Houston, I took biology and chemistry courses and my passion for science grew exponentially. In 2009, H1N1 (swine flu) swept the nation, and once again my life was impacted by pandemic. I remember we had to stop shaking hands with opponents at club volleyball tournaments. I was fascinated in a more academic manner than before and was glued to the TV and the Internet.
In 2020, we are obviously all aware of pandemics and a lot of their trends and tendencies. But even five or 10 years ago epidemiology was a relatively niche corner of the scientific community — at least in the eyes of the public.
I think that’s because there’s an almost morbid fascination with things like this. It’s the same reason we love movies like Contagion. When you hear about an outbreak in a foreign country, it’s hard to take your eyes off the news. And I have some of that interest, of course, too. But for me, even from a young age, I was always interested in diseases, medicine and healthcare because I’ve always wanted to help people. Being at the front lines of a pandemic was always a dream for me because it meant that I’d be in the incredibly important position to help save lives, to make a difference in the world.
But I never dreamed of being at the front lines of a disease outbreak as a professional volleyball player in South Korea.
Because that’s where I found myself this winter.
I graduated from Stanford in 2018 with a bachelor’s in human biology and a master’s in epidemiology, with a focus on — yeah, you guessed it — infectious diseases. I was a four-time All-America at Stanford and was on the 2016 team that made an incredible run to win the national championship.
The game gave me the opportunity to attend an incredible school and make friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life. Which is why, when I left Stanford, I didn’t want to leave volleyball. I went overseas in 2018 and played in a professional league in Italy. I’ve always had a desire to see the world, and to experience how others live, ever since I was little and my dad moved us all over for work.
So this last summer when the opportunity came up to go play in Seoul it was a no-brainer.
Pro volleyball for a season in one of the greatest cities in Asia?
What could go wrong?
Well, first of all, Seoul was incredible. The city is so modern and fast-paced. And my team, GS Caltex Seoul KIXX, was so welcoming, making me feel at home even though I knew I was definitely not at home. I’m 6′ 9″, and I got a lot more looks in South Korea than I ever have in the U.S., for sure.
To see up close how the people of South Korea handled the coronavirus outbreak was incredibly impressive. In college I signed up for ProMED-mail — an infectious disease daily newsletter that alerts you to new outbreaks all over the world. Most are small outbreaks that are contained extremely quickly and fizzle out after being identified and treated. In December, I remember reading about a novel coronavirus being reported in China. I wasn’t too concerned at the time; China was a long way away, and had experience dealing with novel infectious disease outbreaks. Surely it would fizzle out like most of the others reported in this newsletter.
The first case of COVID-19 was reported in South Korea on January 20. More cases popped up, but all from people who had been to Wuhan. Slowly cases of person-to-person transmission increased, and by late February there had been an explosive increase in cases. I started to worry. We were still playing games in packed gyms with fans enthusiastically cheering after every point. We were living in an extremely dense city where anyone could be infected, all touching the same volleyball. Thousands of people were infected, right on the cusp of the Lunar new year — one of the busiest travel weekends in Asia. Unless radical measures were taken, the rest of the world would soon be experiencing exactly what China had gone through.
Back when I wrote my personal statement to get into my master’s program, I traced my interest in epidemiology back to The Walking Dead. I was obsessed with the show in high school and loved to think through countless hypothetical situations in my head, imagining how the zombie pathogen would spread, how I would survive, and what I would do to save the world.
Now at 25, and in the middle of yet another pandemic, I thought back to The Walking Dead and my two degrees’ worth of knowledge in infectious disease epidemiology. When I graduated, I assumed that the next time one of these pandemics came around I’d be actively participating on the medical side of things. Instead, I wasn’t quite on the frontlines, but still had a unique perspective to take in everything that was happening around me.
When the virus began to take hold in South Korea, I thought the response of the government and the citizens was outstanding given the circumstances. And that’s a big reason why I wanted to write this. I’m back in America now, back in Texas. Things here are not nearly as under-control as they are in South Korea, and people are paying with their lives.
During the initial phase of the outbreak in Seoul, people began wearing masks and distancing themselves from each other immediately. There were posters and signs and warnings all over the city telling people to wash their hands, wear masks, and giving other instructions for safety.
But the most important thing that people did?
They listened to the government.
They listened to scientists.
And they listened to each other.
In South Korea, the elderly are really well-respected. Much more so than anywhere I’ve ever been. Anyone who is older than you, you have to speak to them in a completely different type of way. It’s hard to explain, and I am by no means an expert in Korean culture, but basically there is a respect system in place that is super important to how the country operates. This respect for elders extends to a respect for authority. People listen to those in charge, and to the experts. Which is why when the scientists and the epidemiologists published their warnings, everyone paid attention.
Of course, I’m just a professional athlete and not an epidemiologist yet (though it’s nice that nobody asks me what that means anymore!), so there are a lot of logistical things that South Korea did that I can’t speak to. I know they were highly experienced in infectious diseases after dealing with MERS and SARS, and so they knew the value of testing early and widely. They also have a sophisticated universal healthcare system that is well-trusted by the public, and heavily utilized. But what I think was their greatest strength in this pandemic was that the Korean people were united in fighting for the public good.
That’s what breaks my heart the most about being back home.
All of this … back and forth about the effectiveness of quarantining and social distancing has unnecessarily cost thousands of people their lives. And, look, I understand how some people are. Not everyone understands the science behind these policies. Media and officials have politicized the pandemic and separated from core issues. People think that it doesn’t affect them and resent the government for taking away some personal liberties and telling them what to do.
I connected through Atlanta when I flew back to Houston from Seoul at the end of March, and my mind was blown by the fact that I didn’t have to be screened, and by how little distancing enforcement there was. I mean this was Atlanta, the home of the CDC. I had just come from South Korea, one of the first countries to be impacted by COVID-19, and there was just … nothing for me to pass through before entering the terminal with everyone else. Korea had taken my temperature and screened me before I left but nothing was done in the U.S.
And I thought, Man, we are so screwed.
I got on the plane for Houston and I made sure to use the wipes I was carrying to clean up my seat and armrests before the flight. The guy beside me, this big man with a Texas accent, was like, “No, sweetheart, what are you doing? That’s crazy!”
Crazy? THAT’S crazy?
I said, “Dude, not at all.”
And I’ve seen the same version of that guy over and over again since I got home.
I appreciate being home with my family to go through this pandemic. But I wish we could all take some lessons from South Korea when it comes to COVID-19. We are not dealing with the common cold here, or the regular old flu. Coronavirus is serious, and it affects everyone. So everyone needs to pitch in.
That’s the only way we’re going to get through this.