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[Analytics] How life has changed after coronavirus

This July 1 photo shows students at Prachaniwet School in Bangkok's Chatuchak district observing social distancing. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

On the surface, life seems to have pretty much returned to the way it was before the deadly coronavirus struck South Korea. Park Han-na, Ko Jun-tae specially for The Korea Herald.

Schools are open, although many in summer vacation now, malls are bustling with shoppers and sports fans have returned to stadiums — albeit with face masks and some other restrictions. The virus curve, which showed a steep spike in February, remains more or less flat with small fluctuations.

Still, the fight against the deadly pathogen is far from over. There is a widespread notion that this precarious balance between virus precaution and normal life could be broken any time with a new flare-up of infections.

From an elementary teacher missing the vibrancy of school to a flight attendant considering a career change, The Korea Herald has interviewed people from all walks of life to get a snapshot of how they are coping with life with the persistent threat of coronavirus.

Flight attendant considers career change

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus hit the aviation industry hard. As borders closed and air passenger traffic sharply fell, pushing airlines to the brink.

For flight attendant Kim Su-jin, the impact was felt in the in-flight services she was hired to provide.

“The number of passengers who refuse to eat or drink has dramatically increased. They also try not to use the restroom,” said Kim Su-jin (not her real name), a 32-year-old stewardess who has worked for an Asia-based airline for three years.

From meal services to taking passengers’ coats and helping them put luggage in the overhead bins, flight attendants were directed to change the way they serve passengers to avoid short-range face-to-face conservations.

The impact of the pandemic has gone well beyond that. Kim has not flown since April and her salary has been cut. She used to work for around 80 hours a month before the pandemic.

“While I am in a mess, the company seems to be in a mess too. I think it might let me go if the crisis persists,” she said.

The ongoing uncertainties have given her serious second thoughts about her career — the job she once described as a “satisfying and perfect fit.”

“I still have trouble accepting the fact that I may have to give up on my dream of taking on new challenges in this industry. As nobody can predict how or when the pandemic crisis will abate, my mind is constantly changing about whether I should wait for the situation to get better or promptly seek a new career path,” she said.

We are living in an era that is rapidly changing and unpredictable, Kim said, given that the aviation and travel industries were thriving just before the coronavirus crisis.

For that reason, she realizes, it may be futile to pursue a job that looks attractive to others or that seems promising for the time being.

“Currently, I’m trying to focus on knowing myself and finding things and jobs that I can pour my enthusiasm and energy into,” she said.

Mom ponders what’s best for kids

Lee Ji-sun, 34, heard about the coronavirus outbreak on the news just a week before returning home after a winter vacation with her two children. They left in mid-November and stayed in Bali and Malaysia for 10 weeks.

“My fears snowballed as I started to hear more and more news from Korea (about COVID-19). I carefully and repeatedly read the guidelines that we had to follow in the airport and during the flight. I bought many face masks in Bali so we’d be well prepared,” she said.

Lee decided to make the overseas trip because her 6-year-old daughter, Jang E-rae, and her 3-year-old son, Jang E-do, are prone to colds that linger for weeks during the wintertime in Korea. Worsening ultrafine dust air pollution here also forced her to look for a better environment for her children.

Swimming in pools and playing on sandy beaches was their daily routine. The kindergarten the children attended in Bali taught them English and provided lunch made with organic ingredients. Still, the tuition was as cheap as 25,000 won ($21) per child per day.

“I realized how many benefits that (being in) nature and (breathing clean) air can give us after watching the kids becoming healthier and stronger from the inside out. They never got tired. They never caught a cold, although they went swimming every day,” Lee said.

Upon their return, she and her children had to stay in quarantine for 14 days, but Lee had no difficulty readjusting to life in Seoul. She enjoyed the convenience of having food and parcels delivered, and the online grocery shopping services here were faster and easier to use than those in Bali.

But the children started to feel stuffy at home and pestered her to take them back to Bali.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Lee and her husband talked about making the extended vacation an annual family event. Now, with the pandemic, they are not sure anymore.

“We believe that it is important for the kids to have fun time playing with water and soil in nature before they get older. It’s a bummer that it doesn’t seem that we can do it in the foreseeable future.”

Musician foresees lasting change in music scene

Hwang Jong-ryol, 50, a singer-songwriter and professor of music engineering at Baekseok Arts University in Seoul, said COVID-19 has opened new horizons for artists, such as livestreaming and virtual concerts, with the expansion of online platforms.

“The boom of online performances has pushed the boundaries of offline concerts by enabling artists to reach out to audiences they never expected to encounter,” Hwang said.

Artists are now more convinced than ever that they can create shows anytime, anywhere via online platforms. “It has great implications, not just in terms of finding new profitable opportunities, but also it will help fulfill a desire that musicians and other performers have for a broader connection and to share their own stories with other people,” he said.

Although many large-scale live events have been canceled or postponed in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Hwang believes they won’t die out.

“I think the music industry will soon come up with systematic content strategies that combine the respective merits of what online and offline events can provide to fans and companies,” he said.

Singapore-based financial analyst misses family back home

Since the virus outbreak started, family reunion in his homeland South Korea has been a distant dream for Kim Taek-jin, a 27-year-old financial analyst in Singapore.

Having been away from home since August last year, occasional visits to his family through a six-hour-long flight over the weekend was what kept Kim motivated to get up every day for an 80-hour work week, just until the virus started spreading in early January.

Once the virus reached outside China and countries started closing down their borders, Kim said he cancelled all of his flights for March and later months and was forced to find new ways to keep his life moving and retain his hard-earned job on track.

Singapore also controlled the virus outbreak well and kept the number of confirmed cases low, but his original lifestyle was completely uprooted, with the country implementing strict social distancing guidelines.

“Most of the things I took for granted before the virus outbreak evaporated into thin air once this virus started,” Kim recalls. “Face-to-face interactions and family vacation trips were no longer options, so I had to improvise, just like many other Koreans in Singapore under similar situation.”

Six months into the outbreak, Kim says his improvisation worked. Regular voice and video calls with his parents and his older sister helped Kim stay on top of family news and inversely helped him become even more close to his loved ones.

“I was interacting with my parents more than I did in the past before the outbreak,” he said. “We were caring for each other from virus fears and gaining real quality family bonding moments.”

Still, Kim felt unfortunate to miss his sister’s birthday and the birth of his newborn nephew. He congratulated the birthday over the phone and saw pictures of the baby through his smartphone, and he dearly waits for the moment to fly over to Korea to cherish the moments despite being late.

“Two-week quarantine (upon entry) is not the problem; I’m absolutely ready for that,” Kim said. “I have waited for more than six months, and there’s no reason I can’t do the same for two more weeks.”

For Kim, entering Korea is not really the problem. He and his employer have been concerned of allowing Kim to visit his family in Korea as there remains a chance that the Singaporean government restricts his entry back to Singapore.

“Would December be a realistic target?” he asked, keeping in mind that a working vaccine is urgently needed for a breakthrough. “Life has been OK so far, but it can certainly be better.”

Singapore-based financial analyst feels homesick

Since the coronavirus outbreak started, reunions with his families and friends have been a distant dream for Kim Taek-jin, a single Korean man working in Singapore.

Having been away from home since August last year, the occasional flights back home over the weekend was what motivated him to get up every morning for a grueling day at office as a financial analyst.

Once the virus started spreading outside China and Korea became one of the first countries to experience a massive COVID-19 outbreak, Kim had to cancel all his flights.

He grew homesick as weeks and months passed by without seeing loved ones back home.

“Most of the things I took for granted before the virus outbreak evaporated into thin air once this pandemic started,” Kim, 27, recalls. “Face-to-face interactions and family vacation trips were no longer options, so I had to improvise, just like many other Koreans in Singapore under similar situation.”

Regular voice and video calls now help Kim stay informed and connected with his parents and sister.

“I was interacting with my parents more than I did in the past before the outbreak,” he said. “We cared more for each other from virus fears and gained real quality family bonding moments.”

Still, Kim felt unfortunate to miss his sister’s birthday and the birth of his newborn nephew. He congratulated the birthday over the phone and saw pictures of the baby through his smartphone, and he dearly waits for the moment to fly over to Korea to cherish the moments despite being late.

“Two-week quarantine (upon entry) is not the problem; I’m absolutely ready for that,” Kim said. “I have waited for more than six months, and there’s no reason I can’t do the same for two more weeks.”

But his company discourages unnecessary overseas trips as there remains a chance that a new flare-up in virus infections here or elsewhere could prompt the Singaporean government to restrict his entry back.

“Would December be a realistic target?” he asked, keeping in mind that a working vaccine is the most needed for a breakthrough. “Life has been OK so far, but it can certainly be better.”

Elementary teacher misses vibrancy of school

Vibrant, loud and cheerful chit-chats of young children had been missing at Dongsu Elementary School in Bupyeong-gu, Incheon, where Kang Hye-min (not real name) works.

The school has been awfully quite for much of the first semester that it almost felt like she was in a different job, the 29-year-old teacher said.

“There was this routine of walking into the classroom at the start of every hour, quieting down the kids from the fun and excitement of the break time and telling them to open up the textbooks,” Kang recalled.

“With this virus, I had to let that go, and kids had to let that go, too. It’s nothing close to what we wanted for the start of this school year, but what else can we do?”

Getting used to the new reality wasn’t so easy for Kang at first.

After weeks of school closure, online classes began in April. In-person classes resumed weeks later, but for only two days a week. For students, it was one day a week, since the class was split into two groups and came to school on two different days.

“Since I couldn’t physically see the students, I felt like I have been talking by myself for hours, and nobody could have cared,” Kang said of the online classes.

Now her school is in summer vacation and Kang is preparing for the next semester, with more confidence and less confusion about how to guide her students as a teacher — even if a new flare-up in virus infections forces schools to close in fall or winter.

I learned how to check up on each student through video chats and text messages and how to best optimize online and offline teachings, she said.

“I think I’m ready to make the next semester much better than the last one,” she added. “The rest will be up to the government.”

By Park Han-na and Ko Jun-tae

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