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Fear and loathing in the age of Coronavirus

Matei Psatta
Mar 10 · 4 min read
Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

I’m an expat entrepreneur (yes, that’s a thing) living in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve been here for about 6 months, developing business and partnerships for the Digital Out of Home ad-tech startup I co-founded.

I’ve seen a lot of alarming articles like “Seoul is a ghost town”, “buses are empty” and such. Hell, I understand the initial appeal, even I made a couple of videos on TikTok before the situation became worrisome and got almost 300k views on them (and, of course, a mix of good and bad comments).

Since then, I’ve seen how local panic looks like in what was for a good while the 2nd most infected country in the world (Italy and Iran recently overtook South Korea in terms of confirmed cases) and have read a worrying number of opinions from people who have barely had any contact with the reality of the situation, I wanted to debunk a couple of myths about the reality of living in a country fighting to contain COVID19.

Please take note, this is my experience as a foreigner living in Seoul — I’m sure a lot of people living in other parts of the world are struggling because of the restrictions and I’m not trying to minimise their suffering, just reduce the spread of panic.

  1. MYTH #1: Streets are empty, no one is going outside

In Korea’s case, use of public transport has decreased by almost 31% — yes, streets do feel less crowded, but nowhere close to empty. Since probably a lot of locals are using their cars in order to avoid crowded public places, an educated guess would be that 15–20% less people are going outside due to the coronavirus situation.

People are reducing their non-essential travel, that’s obvious, and whatever can be done remotely is being done remotely. We’ve stopped going to the office as well and do most of our work from home. However, any photos you see circulating online of an empty street is just a dramatic version of reality.

2. MYTH #2: There’s chaos and panic everywhere

Nothing of the sort, at least not in Seoul. There is a tension floating in the air and you’ll see people looking funny at someone who coughs or sneezes (even if they have their mask on). It’s natural, I guess. There are indeed extreme cases of xenophobia and actual racism, but what I am saying is that this is not the norm. I feel that these cases get more attention now than in a normal situation, but don’t fall pray to the availability heuristic.

3. Myth #3: Stores and shops are closed, there’s nothing to do

Partially true — for example, my gym was closed for a week mostly as a prevention. It’s now reopened and it’s business as usual.

I’ve seen a few restaurants shortening their operating hours. It reopened recently and it does feel 20–30% less crowded, just like with public transportation, but other than that, at least in central Seoul, things feel slower, but still functioning.

There’s plenty of products available in supermarkets and shops, no such thing as shortage of essential supplies.

4. Myth #4: It’s impossible to find face masks, you should stock up

Masks are available, but not in large quantities, which is a GOOD THING. People tend to stockpile and that’s actually the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you should do. Although it is more difficult to find masks, the Korean government is figuring out different ways to distribute them equally. Right now, you can buy masks on different days of the week based on your year of birth. By the way, although this goes against human nature, hoarding actually increases the chances you will get infected. If you have a large stockpile of masks, that means other people don’t have enough of them, which means they have an increased chance of spreading the virus to other people, which will eventually find its way to you.

If you want to reduce the chances of getting infected, try thinking at scale. Buy enough to get by for a while, but not so much that you’ll do more harm (even to yourself) than good.

5. Myth #5: You can’t get any business done because of the coronavirus situation

This final one is closest to the truth, but still a myth. A lot of business meetings and projects have been postponed. Things are still moving, but at a slower pace. Some things are being done by videoconferencing, although that is not extremely popular in Korea.

In our case, since I know that one the best, we’ve seen an increase for international advertising requests on Digital Out of Home screens in region affected by the virus — both humanitarian and commercial from companies that still have stocks available. At the same time, some local clients are reducing their spend because they are out of stock or can’t distribute. It really depends on how you adapt, some businesses will suffer more than others — for example, in South Korea, some private schools are being subsidised by the government because they had to close down, others have resorted to online classes.

In conclusion, I want to point out this is not the end of times, like some articles are dramatically stating.

It’s a time in which we should be extra rational and not succumb to basic instincts. Shunning infected people is the reason some are lying about their travel history — it is simply conservation instinct. That behaviour shouldn’t be excused, but we need to have empathy and realise that most of us would do the same if we would not feel safe.

So please take all information with a grain of salt, process news rationally, rather than emotionally and, most importantly, to quote one of my favourite “guides” of all time, don’t panic.

Matei Psatta

Written by

TPS Engage (Techstars ’18) co-founder and jack of digital trades.

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