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The Dark Side of FOMO: Living Through a Coronavirus Outbreak in South Korea

SEOUL — I’d expected to see masks in South Korea, but I wasn’t prepared for the strange social dance of complimentary hand sanitizer. It’s everywhere now, often in big, Costco-sized pump bottles, offered as an ad-hoc public service. In bathrooms, at the register at coffee shops, the front desk in hotels. Always displayed in such…

The Dark Side of FOMO: Living Through a Coronavirus Outbreak in South Korea

SEOUL — I’d expected to see masks in South Korea, but I wasn’t prepared for the strange social dance of complimentary hand sanitizer.

It’s everywhere now, often in big, Costco-sized pump bottles, offered as an ad-hoc public service. In bathrooms, at the register at coffee shops, the front desk in hotels. Always displayed in such a way that feels both inviting and accusing — when’s the last time you washed your hands? So you take a couple conspicuous squirts so that everyone can see that you’re taking your safety, but more importantly their safety, seriously.

After a while, you start to develop a connoisseur’s nose for the stuff. Or you develop a gag reflex: mine gets set off just by looking at the Purell my coworker brought from the States; it smells like gasoline and cheese. There’s a local Korean brand that makes my hands smell like citrus vodka, even after it evaporates. Another smells like berries but feels like maple syrup. Who knows which one is the most effective against coronavirus, or if any of them are.

The thing is, I had no plan of covering coronavirus. When my coworkers and I arrived in South Korea a few days ago, it was to film a couple segments for Vice News Tonight that had been set up months ago, reporting on something completely unrelated to coronavirus. But pretty soon, it was obvious that the disease, or at least the fear of it, was starting to seep into every facet of daily life.

READ: Here’s how China is hunting down its coronavirus critics

Our first story took us out to the countryside. We were supposed to be filming a large gathering of people, many of whom lived in Seoul and were making the trip out for a break from the hustle of the city. But when we arrived, we discovered that several people had canceled, because of coronavirus.

“A lot of people were afraid to come,” one of the organizers told me, through a translator. “Even though it’s probably a lot safer out here than in a crowded city like Seoul.” I nodded. He half-smiled at the irony.

Irony on top of irony, then, when we woke up the next morning to news that a new crop of coronavirus cases had been discovered not far away.

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By the time we arrived in Seoul ourselves, it had gone from a concerning number of cases to a full blown outbreak. And while it never felt unsafe (infections were concentrated in Daegu, hours away), it occasionally felt uncomfortable. Sometimes it was lonely: eating in empty restaurant after empty restaurant, wondering if any other customers would come in.

Sometimes it was surreal: watching a violinist fidget his nose under a heavy-duty face mask as he played a gorgeous rendition of the theme song from “Charlie And the Chocolate Factory” in front of a crowd of bored businessmen.

Sometimes it was infuriating: watching my Chinese coworker (who lives in New York, and was nowhere near China when the outbreak happened) constantly being subjected to accusatory questions by xenophobic hotel clerks who were “just doing their job.”

READ: The coronavirus is starting to hit the U.S. military

But the most pervasive barometer of everyone’s anxiety was in our own pockets.

Fear of missing coronavirus

At one point, my crew and I were interviewing someone on camera, and we kept hearing the buzz of a phone notification. At first, we thought someone had forgotten to put their phone on silent, but then we realized everyone’s phones were buzzing at the same time. The government was pushing out mandatory health alerts about nearby outbreaks.

In contrast to China, which has been opaque about the spread of the disease within their borders, the Korean authorities have been startlingly open — almost too open — about coronavirus cases, even publishing information online about when and where infections were discovered, the ages and genders of the patients, and a host of other data.

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