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Masks were always readily available in South Korea at one of those convenience stores found every hundred meters. South Koreans wear masks because of the high-pollution levels, when they have a cold, or for the simple vain reason to hide their swollen faces after a beauty surgery. 

Then one day came the news of a novel virus breaking out in Wuhan, China. The unexpected seriousness of this virus only hit me, when I looked for a mask but none could be found. However, still seeing cotton masks hanging from the shelves, naive me thought to buy them the next day, only to find even those disappear without a trace. 

That was around the middle of February. Now countries all over the world face a crisis in masks. In South Korea, the government has taken control of the supply of masks. We receive one of those emergency messages on our phones that notify us which pharmacy sells masks in your vicinity. Thus during lunch breaks, you can see people queue in front of the pharmacy, getting their allotted ten-piece set of masks by presenting their citizens’ cards. Nobody can get more than their share, everything is stored in the system. Bad luck for those tourists with a visa-free status or those illegal migrants. 

For sure, we all wish for a vaccine to be found soon and our lives return to a state of normalcy. But I also think that this crisis may have given us some unexpected benefits. First of all, after having lived in Seoul for about three years, I have seen that South Koreans often instead of coughing into their hands or their sleeves, would just cough in front of them, so you'll be covered in mucus and snot once you leave the fully packed subways. This means once someone has a cold, you can expect a few days later that half of Seoul will have a cold. It is not that this etiquette hasn’t been learned as children, it just doesn’t seem to be too bothersome”. Nowadays, however, everybody sneezes nicely into their sleeves and takes distance when coughing. Let's hope this behavior continues even in times without COVID-19.

And most importantly, it's the enormous difference you notice in the air quality. Usually, spring is the season with the worst air pollution in Seoul. But the suspension of many factory works and the lower levels of people driving around have a noticeable effect on air quality. Yes, I cannot join my daily Taekwondo evening classes, because all group activities have been banned, but I can have a run along the canal, not to worry that normally this would have done me more harm than good.

The next few weeks will be a quieter Seoul, but we will get through these times and as the Koreans like to say when cheering somebody up: Fighting!


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