SEOUL, South Korea — The pandemic has made us all face choices we’ve by no means needed to make. For me, considered one of them was to resolve if it was secure sufficient to go to my mother and father right here or not see them in any respect this yr. However because the weeks prolonged to months, I made a decision it was a threat value taking.

Many international locations have strict restrictions on American guests, with many requiring them to spend two weeks in quarantine. South Korea was no exception: I used to be informed I’d be required to obtain an app on the airport and self-quarantine for 2 weeks on arrival.

However that was just the start. It wasn’t till I arrived that I noticed the extent of the federal government’s program to comprise the virus.

At Kennedy Airport’s worldwide terminal in New York, usually full of strains of individuals heading to locations internationally, all was silent. Verify-in counters have been empty and the flooring seemed as if that they had been polished minutes in the past.

The check-in assistant was pleasant and the method was seamless till she handed me a bit of paper I wanted to signal acknowledging that I’d in quarantine for 14 days at a authorities facility on arrival. I defined to the airline agent that I had deliberate on staying with my mother and father.

The agent knowledgeable me that with out proof my mother and father dwell in Seoul, I’d be shuttled straight to the federal government facility from the airport in Korea. I known as my mother and father in a panic, although it was 2 a.m. there. Fortunately that they had the required types mendacity round from a couple of years again. They despatched me a screenshot of the doc, which I hoped could be sufficient after I landed.

A medical employee speaks with a customer within the walk-thru testing heart at H Plus Yangji Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, in July. SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg through Getty Photos file


Korean Air, like many different U.S. airways, had spaced out seats all through the aircraft to stick to social distancing protocols. Whereas on the aircraft, I used to be handed 4 pages of types to fill out, which included three totally different journey declaration types and an arrival card, somewhat than the standard single kind.

By the point I landed at Incheon Airport, every little thing felt sterile. Video partitions as soon as lined with “Welcome to Korea” commercials have been changed by movies of dancing sharks advising individuals learn how to preserve clear and secure in the course of the pandemic. It appeared I had traveled on the one aircraft that had arrived on the terminal.

The primary desk we handed whereas going via the terminal, which we’d usually bypass, had a mounted warmth sensor digicam. I used to be stopped and requested a couple of questions and had my temperature checked.

I gave my U.S. cellphone quantity, however was informed I wanted to offer a Korean one. I crossed off mine and changed it with my mother’s cell quantity. They have been meticulous in inspecting the small print I had jotted down on all my types.

On the subsequent checkpoint, I used to be informed to obtain the Korean authorities’s Covid-19 app, titled “Self-Quarantine Security Safety.” It had a monitoring system and I would want to document my temperature and any signs twice each day. The assistant hovered over me and watched me as I put in the app on my iPhone simply to verify I had enabled alerts and that the app was operating always.

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On the third checkpoint, I handed over my passport and journey paperwork earlier than one other clerk confirmed my app was certainly downloaded correctly. They then known as the Korean quantity I had jotted down earlier to substantiate it labored.

I used to be then handed one other three pages of types to fill out, earlier than staffers at two additional checkpoints verified the data. That is the way it’s decided whether or not vacationers must quarantine. Failure to conform may lead to as much as a yr in jail or as much as 10 million received (practically $9,000) in fines, per the Korean Illness Management and Prevention Company.

The final checkpoint earlier than baggage declare was, amongst different issues, to confirm my mother and father’ data in order that I may stick with them. Due to the paperwork I unexpectedly gathered proper earlier than my flight, with only a screenshot of a bit of paper from years in the past, I’d be exempt from quarantine. If the data couldn’t be verified, I’d be taken straight from the airport to a resort and ordered to not depart for 2 weeks.

Lastly, I believed I used to be on the opposite facet. I used to be jet-lagged and I wished to see my mother and father and go dwelling. However there could be yet another line. Guests are usually required to journey into Seoul by a government-certified taxi or shuttle bus.

However my mother and father could be driving me dwelling, which meant surrendering but extra data, this time offering my father’s cell quantity and our dwelling deal with.


The subsequent morning, I used to be required to take a Covid-19 take a look at. Whether or not you’re a foreigner or a Korean citizen, the assessments are walk-ins they usually’re free. As I waited for my flip, I overheard a bunch of males say that they had obtained an alert a couple of case at a marriage that they had attended. It was unbelievable seeing this contact tracing we’ve all develop into so acquainted with taking place in actual time.

Later that evening, my mother obtained a textual content from the native company to say my take a look at was adverse. I’d even be assigned a case agent who could be my contact throughout my keep.

A bag arrived from the native authority the subsequent day that contained a thermometer, a pack of disposable masks, two sorts of hand sanitizers and a rubbish bag. For the 2 weeks of my quarantine, I would want to discard any of my rubbish within the government-mandated bag. I used to be informed it could be collected on the finish of my keep.

On day seven of the quarantine, my mother obtained one more name from my appointed Covid-19 contact. They wished to talk with me. I used to be requested to substantiate that I used to be, the truth is, me, earlier than asking some questions and providing psychological well being companies if I required one.

Each time a brand new case emerged in a neighboring city, my iPhone would ping with a brand new notification, the identical noise telephones make when there may be an Amber Alert within the U.S. I’d get two or three of those alerts nearly daily.

An worker, proper, checks the temperature of a passenger in entrance of a departure gate at Incheon Worldwide Airport in South Korea, in August.SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg through Getty Photos file


The day earlier than my flight again to the U.S., my native contact wished to substantiate my flight particulars. She additionally reminded us that I would want to take these government-designated taxis to the airport, regardless of having been in a position to journey together with my mother and father after I had landed. The taxis have been meticulously sterilized after every journey.

With the ability to stroll round an airport felt liberating after two weeks caught inside. Life was again to regular — individuals sat and ate at tables, which had been roped off so we’d be socially distanced. We shared elevators. Shops have been open however foot visitors was low.


It’s onerous to think about the U.S. with the ability to implement all of the measures utilized in South Korea. People have been reluctant to put aside their privateness and freedom to necessities of security and management. South Korean tradition is extra conservative, a view shared extra broadly in Asian cultures with emphasis round respecting the aged that maybe trickles all the way down to how individuals view authority.

On my aircraft dwelling, I obtained one pamphlet from the CDC. “Cease the Unfold of Covid-19: Do your half. For 14 days after your journey, keep dwelling. Monitor your well being.”

With that, I landed again at JFK. No paperwork, no app, no temperature checks. I took an Uber which I booked from my iPhone, and went dwelling.


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