I was traveling in South Korea as the coronavirus struck, and I was amazed at how the country sprang into action

I visited Seoul, South Korea, for the first time as the world deals with the spread of the coronavirus.

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I visited Seoul, South Korea, for the first time as the world deals with the spread of the coronavirus.
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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

SEOUL, South Korea – While traveling to South Korea over the past week, the first question I’ve gotten from most people who I’ve talked to back in the US is: “Are you worried about the coronavirus?”

My answer has been no, not really. There have been 19 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in South Korea as of Thursday, compared to 11 in the US. The majority of cases are people who have recently visited China or interacted closely with others who have.

Statistics aside, I have been struck by how clearly and visibly the coronavirus has transformed my trip.

According to friends back in the US, life there has pretty much continued without any serious acknowledgement of the outbreak. More people are wearing surgical masks, sending sales spiking. However, day-to-day, it sounds like the US is pretty much unchanged.

My experience has been completely different. While I haven’t been quarantined or dealt with any serious consequences of the outbreak, the South Korean government has made it essentially impossible to avoid the reality of the coronavirus and information on how to prevent its spread. That is a testament to the government’s readiness to deal with an outbreak – and has made me wonder how the US would react in a similar position.

Here is what it has been like traveling in South Korea as the country fights to stop the coronavirus from spreading.


Arriving at Seoul’s Incheon Airport, I was not sure what to expect.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

South Korea has barred all non-Korean travelers coming from China’s Hubei province from entering the country, effective this Tuesday.


People arriving from China have to go to a quarantine area that was specifically set up for the country.

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A Chinese man wearing swimming goggles and a mask gets his temperature checked upon his arrival at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, January 29, 2020.
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REUTERS

Source: Korea Times


While there was a quarantine area set up when I arrived last week, I did not have to undergo any extensive examination as a traveler arriving from the US. Instead, I was through customs and out of the airport in under 15 minutes.

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Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The first evidence of how seriously Seoul was taking the coronavirus came in the form of endless signs about how to avoid getting sick.

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A sign outside of Namsangol Hanok Village was just one of hundreds around the city.
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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Some signs were small.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Others were massive, like these long banners hung in various public spaces around the city.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

I even got reminders while attempting to join public WiFi networks.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

The subway was filled with signs, which explained that stations and trains were being regularly sanitized.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

All the signs were basically instructing the same thing: wear a mask, wash your hands, and cover your mouth when you cough.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

The endless instructions about masks stood out. Experts say that masks are not necessarily effective in preventing the spread of the virus. In the US, the CDC only recommends face masks for healthcare providers and people who might be infected.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Source: Business Insider


Meanwhile, South Korea’s CDC’s official take is that people should take steps to prevent spreading the coronavirus, “including hand washing, cough etiquette, and wearing mask if you have respiratory symptoms.”

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Source: KCDC


Department stores and restaurants were requiring workers to wear masks on the job.

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A notice at Shingsea Department store.
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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

The Royal Guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace all had masks on.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

These masks were so classy I had to double check if they were part of the standard uniform, but they appear to be a new addition.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Visitors — including people in traditional Korean hanboks — at Gyeongbokgung Palace also donned masks.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Wearing masks is more common in South Korea than in the US, both for people who are sick and want to avoid infecting others and for people dealing with air pollution. I came across various cute designs — like these fluffy fleece masks — while shopping in Seoul.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

However, many South Koreans are currently searching for more medical-grade options. When I visited a Costco warehouse last week, surgical masks were swiftly selling out.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Read more: Costco is selling out of surgical masks in South Korea, as the country battles the spread of the coronavirus


People hoarding masks or hand sanitizer can face a fine of up to $42,108 and two years in prison.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Source: Business Insider


Pharmacies and shops selling masks put new shipments in the front of stores, where crowds have been quick to buy up inventory.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

I followed the advice of wearing a surgical mask — which I purchased on Amazon back in the US — about half the time. I washed my hands and used the hand sanitizer provided in most public spaces pretty much constantly.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

The bulk of government efforts have been focused on people visiting from China, not on American tourists. Last week, my phone (and others’ around me at Costco) received an emergency alert, instructing me to contact the disaster prevention headquarters if I develop a fever within 14 days of visiting China.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Overall, I was more heavily impacted by others’ voluntary actions than anything the government required.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

I slept overnight at a temple stay that is typically split evenly between English-speaking foreigners and Koreans. However, due to coronavirus-related cancellations, I was the only non-Korean to participate in the program.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

The Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled its tour throughout Asia, with planned stops including Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei. K-pop stars and other performers have also cancelled shows — but, since I have a friend that works with the BSO, this one hurt me the most.


Overall, I was impressed and surprised by how Seoul and the South Korean government responded to the threat of coronavirus. It was downright impossible to avoid signs about how to best prevent the spread of the disease.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

Maybe it was naive, but the overwhelming omnipresence of these signs and frequent sanitation helped put my mind at ease on bigger issues, such as whether Seoul would be ready if more coronavirus cases were confirmed.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

The abundance of masks also took me by surprise. However, with masks beginning to sell out in countries around the world, the reliance on surgical masks is the new normal.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider

As I prepare to leave Seoul, my main concern is whether countries I’m planning to visit in Southeast Asia are ready to respond to the coronavirus with the same speed as South Korea.

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Kate Taylor/Business Insider