Via Skype, they now tell me I would be crazy to return to the United Kingdom given the rapidly worsening situation in the Old Continent. Well, the day after I left London, the lockdown of an entire continent was being put in place. It is now me who worries about my friends, not to mention my family.
I am glued to my laptop following hour by hour, horrified, the speed with which, in the continent of the Siecle des Lumieres, France, champion of the Declaration of Human Rights, and my country Switzerland, the land of people's direct democracy, are locking up their entire population, as do their neighbors.
No apology for the dramatic opening sequence. My departure brings to mind the iconic photo of a German family fleeing to the West the day Walter Ulbricht's communist troops were erecting the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. Did I take the last flight to freedom (funnily enough, on board a Lufthansa plane)? Well, apparently, there is no more planes flying from Heathrow or Geneva to Korea, and I am not even sure I would be allowed to get out of my north London home.
Total population containment and forced "social distancing" are the only policies European leaders believe will be effective. The United Kingdom did, courageously, explore an alternative route to stave off the epidemic, without reverting to the brutal hand of the state. They lost this fight, aligning themselves with Europe's catechism (so much for Brexit). Rumors circulate that London is about to be on lockdown.
France best illustrates what a lockdown is. The entire population is told to stay inside their homes for at least a month. If people need to go out, they must print an authorization form downloaded from the government website, tick one of the five reasons to justify the trip, sign it and keep it with them. One of the 100,000 police officers across the country will ask to check it. If you were creative about the reasons you gave, you will be punished.
I learnt today that more than 100,000 "law-breaking" citizens have already been fined. Needless to say that all places where people meet are closed. Switzerland seems to be obsessed with social distancing. No gathering of more than five people is allowed, and the distance between each must be at least two meters. The police are omnipresent to enforce the law. Germany just announced a ban on gatherings of more than two people.
Sensible move, overreaction? What is certain is that European governments were caught with their pants down when it came to addressing Italy's terrifying coronavirus unfolding. You think they would design a strategy informed by the ones implemented in countries that are successfully fighting the virus. Sadly not. They solely focus on China, and this is the nauseating part of the story.
All the experts and commentators who pontificate night after night on French television, for example, now genuflect to China's "prescience" for their Wuhan quarantine policy. Compared with some of the diktats on Europe's population, China does indeed look at times like the Club Med. Those very experts, who rightfully distrusted the concealments and lies China peddled at the start of the epidemic (and probably still does), now accept at face value the rosy figures distilled by brother Xi. Only someone abusing adulterated Maotai believes China saw only a handful of new infections over the past week.
Given that the European governments (and now others) have chosen to go down the Chinese route, no surprise they only flock to Beijing for advice and support, which the Middle Kingdom is happy to oblige. They just offered a million masks to the French. I guess it must have been the consignment destined to the one million-plus Uighurs piled up in "re-education" camps (by the way, no infection there?).
The nauseating part is this. While the way the Chinese dictatorship does things is mostly unpalatable to Western democracies, the view that only such regimes can successfully deal with calamitous situations (through harsh containment) is becoming acceptable, normalized, unchallenged. That European politicians and healthcare executives did not turn first to Asia's like-minded democratic nation that successfully curved the infection, namely, South Korea, boggles the mind. The sophistry and mental gymnastic TV pundits engage in to avoid explaining to their viewers why South Korea ought to be the shining example to follow is pathetic. As a front-line witness, I try to calm my anger with soju, readily available as no shops are closed in the Land of the Morning Calm!
Indeed, with the exemption of kindergartens and high schools, everything ― from restaurants, museums and coffee shops to grocery stores, cinemas and hairdressers ― has remained open. No state-imposed "social distancing" (though of late, it is encouraged) or containment, let alone lockdown, even in the infection epicentre Daegu. No panic buying, no empty shelves (what is this Westerners' obsession with toilet rolls?). The outcome? "Only" 120 deaths since the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic three months ago. The strategy? Targeted testing using Big Data.
South Korea's parliament has authorized the government to access the GPS data of all mobile phone users as well as their credit card use. When a case of infection is confirmed, this huge amount of data enables health authorities and response teams to trace the whereabouts of the infected person up to the previous nine days, with a view to identifying the potential source of the infection. The localized cluster is then "carpet-bombed" with testing. Today, over 300,000 tests have been conducted, up to 20,000 a day. Testing is free and can also be administered in drive-ins and phone booth-like outfits.
A Big Brother approach, it is. Libertarians will be dismayed by the fact that this data is readily available live on a free app, coronamap.site, which enables everyone to learn of the potential presence of infectious cases in their neighborhood. I and some of my Korean friends are uneasy about this level of disclosure. While names of establishments are publicized, the identities of the infected persons are withheld. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that it did not take long for the details of some of them to surface, with the potential backlash one might expect. Add to that the regular (and loud) SMS alerts notifying new cases in your area (they also offer useful advice and support tips), and you have the backbone of an effective coronavirus killing machine. "Desperate times require desperate measures," wrote Greek physician?Hippocrates, in his?"Aphorisms." Given the success of the South Korean strategy, I bite the bullet and still prefer to see my personal data in the hands of an elected government rather than in those of the Chinese Communist Party.
Short of a vaccine, the most effective means of slowing down or preventing the spread of the virus is regular hand washing, repeated ad nauseam on the excellent sites of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) and the World Health Organization, and actually reminded by all European governments. The Koreans take it very seriously. Bottles of hand sanitizer, sometimes accompanied with a thermometer, are found virtually everywhere. I saw it first when I visited my hairdresser, then when I met my friends at the restaurant. In hospitals and other key buildings, an attendant might take your temperature and ask you to write down your contact details. Needless to say, reasonably priced bottles of hand sanitizing liquid are in ample supply in the country. My family members in the U.K. and Switzerland tell me this all-important fighting tool is nowhere to be seen. As soon as (rare) supplies are available in stores (even in the upper-class U.K. chain Waitrose), profiteers grab the stocks and put them up for sale on eBay at extortionate prices. The same thing happens in other European countries. And those governments, who have no qualms sending the police ― and soon the army ― to maintain order, are doing nothing to prevent this iniquitous trade. The South Korean government banned gouging patients and consumers on essential supplies, and took over the distribution of masks.
Discussion on the use of Big Data to fight the epidemic is slowly making its way into the discourse of worried politicians no longer able to ignore the successful "trace, test, treat" strategy of South Korea. The problem is that, if or when Europe deploys similar measures, these will come on top of coercive policies implemented today, not in lieu of them. If this ever happens, I will see to it that my wife and son take the last raft heading for the Korean Peninsula. And I will finally perfect my Korean. Promise …
Swiss-born Dr Jean-Luc Renaud is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Hannam University's Linton School of Global Business. He has lived in Daejeon since 2014.