A tale of two viruses
The stark difference in handling the pandemic on opposite sides of the Pacific
By Gail Gagnon
I was in Florida the first couple months of 2020. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus was making its way through China, Korea, Japan and Europe. I kept seeing it on the news and became more interested when I saw cases in South Korea had skyrocketed in February and March.
This was a problem because my husband is a right-handed reliever who finally made the Major Leagues in 2018. He joined several big leaguers who went overseas to play as they waited on the late-starting 2020 MLB season.
And guess where my husband was going? You guessed it. South Korea. It was his first year playing in the Korea Baseball Organization. This was a big deal for him, for us, but I no longer desired to follow him there seeing South Korea’s struggles with the coronavirus.
Next thing I knew, it was April and time for him to report. Reluctantly, I followed.
I will never forget when I met the translator assigned to our family, Lee Yeon Joon. One of my first questions was about the virus spreading quickly through the U.S. His answer was jarring “…they don’t really care about the coronavirus so it can be more spread after two months or one months. It can be spread to the old people, so everybody feel it’s going to be a really big issue in the United States.”
He also revealed how he was treated during his stay in the U.S.: “A little bit because all the Korean people wore masks when we stay in the United States, and they are looking like, ‘Oh what the hell are they doing that (for)? Why are they wearing masks? Are they contagious for that? Why do they care about the coronavirus?’ So, they are looking at us like anywhere we go. So, we feel like racism. Especially in the supermarket.”
The irony of his answer didn’t hit me at the time.
International flights in the midst of a burgeoning pandemic was terrifying, especially after binging on the non-stop media coverage. It is hard to fathom the creepiness of walking through an empty, monstrous San Francisco Airport. You have to experience it.
The silence was downright eerie. I will never forget it. The buzz of the machinery was an ambient noise that echoed off the cavernous roof. Practically no one in line, not in the check-in, not at Starbucks, not at the Southwest gate waiting to board. The people who were there were all intensely watching each other. You could see the eyes darting back and forth. The thought of being close to another human was chilling. Mostly everyone wore masks and kept a safe distance.
So imagine the shock of entering the plane and seeing rows and rows of passengers. Do they not realize we are facing a deathly virus? Apparently, everyone had to be somewhere, like us. Many were citizens of South Korea who, anticipating international travel would be banned, were making their way back home. I shared my disinfectant wipe with a gentleman next to me on the plane.
I took a deep breath when we landed in Incheon, South Korea, preparing myself for the tough journey through customs. It was also frighteningly quiet in this airport, the only noise coming from the people in line trying to prove residency. Anyone who couldn’t provide a specific address of residence was forced to stay at a facility where they could safely quarantine.
Each step of the way, passengers’ temperatures were tracked through thermal cameras. Once we were determined to be in healthy condition, or at least not having the common symptoms of the virus, arriving passengers were required to download a phone app to track our location and health status for the first two weeks. It felt surreal at the time but, in hindsight, it is not surprising as South Korea eventually became a model country for their response to the pandemic.
Many Americans, when the coronavirus started ravaging the nation, were suspicious of South Koreans — all Asians, actually — yet while in South Korea I felt so safe considering we were in the midst of a global pandemic.
As I walked the sunny streets of the enormous Korean downtowns, everyone wore masks and kept a friendly distance. Yet, they still made sure to acknowledge one another with a respectful bow. Elaborate shopping malls were even open. As one entered these oversized malls, they were greeted by employees monitoring their temperature on cameras and gently misted with a disinfectant.
I never felt at risk for a moment. And while I was safe in South Korea, my family and friends in the States were living in a state of panic, exposed to this disgusting virus. South Koreans were now suspicious of me and other American travelers — still respectful, but cautious.
I went to lunch with another American wife of a player on the team. Next to us was a clean, empty table. The restaurant was full. There was a line to get in. But many patrons continued refusing the available table next to us. They’d rather wait longer than sit by the Americans. It was hard to even be offended given the statistics at the time.
At this time, America was having major issues with the pandemic. Remember how terrified I was about going to South Korea? I was even more terrified about leaving.
This time, instead of being shocked by the empty terminals, I was begging for them, elated to see a clean and barren airport. There were several health checks on the way to the airport. I was pleased with the amount of precaution the Korean government took to keep everyone safe.
Once again, I took a deep breath when the plane landed, this time in San Francisco. This time, the fearful entry I was anticipating was into California.
Was I even on the same planet? People removing their masks, crowding together. TOUCHING EACH OTHER.
In April 2020, there were 50,000 deaths confirmed in the United States, according to the Washington Post. I was actually glad to be in South Korea. The thought of heading home when the baseball season ended in July, where America’s response to coronavirus policies had cases and deaths going through the roof, was increasingly scary.
Before long, it was time to buckle up and take this fight back to the United States. FYI, my husband started 28 games, won 11 and struck out 141 batters in 159.2 innings. Just saying.
The health checks were simplistic, unconvincing. I got through customs and to my luggage carousel way too easily. It should’ve been much harder given we’re in a pandemic.
Leaving the airport and walking to my front door, I could see maskless neighbors talking to one another. I slammed my door behind me, disgusted with what I was seeing. After being away for four months, we were home. And for the first time since the coronavirus hit, I was scared.