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[Kim Seong-kon] Be grateful and modest in these challenging times

May 13, 2020 - 10:00 By Kim Seong-kon
Amid the ever-widening spread of the novel coronavirus, we realize things that we normally would not. For example, we realize we should be grateful to doctors, nurses and health care workers who are willing to take the risk of contagion in order to save their patients from a dangerous virus.

Our gratitude should also go to police officers and ambulance staff, who have to respond to emergencies and whose daily assignments expose them to the contagious virus as well. We should be especially grateful to “essential workers” such as mail carriers, supermarket workers and those who deliver groceries to our doorstep. In the past, we took their services for granted. Now, we realize we should not.

Newspaper reporters and foreign correspondents, too, deserve our special gratitude. They do not hesitate to visit dangerous places and meet with the infected to report the truth. Presently, foreign correspondents are living in highly vulnerable places such as New York City to report live scenes. Whenever I encounter their reports, I admire their dauntless courage to venture to dangerous places in order to let us know about the situation vividly.

In times of crisis, we should appreciate government officials and soldiers who are the guardians of our country. We should not discourage them by suggesting the reduction of their pension as if it were our tax money. Contrary to popular belief, their pension has nothing to do with tax in principle; the government deducts a considerable amount of money from their salary every month for their pension. We should be grateful for their services, which are vital for our national security.

In addition, we should also be grateful to foreign diplomats stationed in Korea who play the role of a bridge between Korea and other countries. Recently, newspaper reports revealed that US Ambassador Harry B. Harris Jr. would resign from his post in Korea soon. We can only conjecture the reason, but according to someone in the US Embassy, one of the reasons was Ambassador Harris’s disappointment in those who are not appreciative.

We should also appreciate our excellent medical service system. In Korea, the government manages the health insurance, whereas hospitals are civilian, not state-run, which makes for a perfect combination. COVID-19 has revealed the chronic problems of both socialist and capitalist health care systems in other countries. However, Korea has no such problems. You can visit a doctor’s office without a prior appointment and rely on excellent medical skills at incredibly low costs.

These days, we are very proud of ourselves for dealing with the novel coronavirus quite well and thus winning the war with the pandemic. Nevertheless, we should be modest and calm down. We should take into account that we are lucky because unlike other countries, we are ready and prepared for the coronavirus due to our experience with the Middle East respiratory syndrome disease a few years ago. We are also very proud that nobody is hoarding in Korea despite the pandemic. For that, we should be grateful to Coupang, the excellent online delivery company that delivers groceries to your doorstep overnight. Other countries do not have such a fast, efficient delivery system.

Surely, we are winning the war with the coronavirus and proud of it. Nevertheless, we should know that in order to become a truly advanced country, we need to meet other global standards as well, such as having complete freedom of speech and a free press, no government surveillance, no censorship and no political vengeance or political prisoners. If not, we cannot expect other countries to venerate Korea as an advanced country, even though we are good at fighting COVID-19.

These days, the United States embarrassingly displays astronomical numbers of coronavirus patients and a massive death toll. Unlike Korea, America was unprepared for the pandemic and has suffered a heavy blow from it. Before the lockdown of the country, the US had millions of tourists and visitors pouring into the country, which fueled the spread of coronavirus throughout the country.

We should keep in mind that unlike Korea, contact tracing is controversial in America and not allowed in most states. Thus, it is difficult to control the pandemic. In addition, a large proportion of those who died in America due to this terrible disease were either homeless or elderly people with preexisting conditions, many of whom lived in concentrated areas like nursing homes with lots of other people.

We compare our country to America as if the latter were just a single entity. However, we should realize that the US consists of 50 states that have different laws and systems. Each state in the US has its own secretaries, senators and representatives, not to mention its own supreme court and justices. If you compare your country to the US, therefore, you should compare it to one of the states, not the whole United States.

In the vortex of the coronavirus pandemic that is currently devastating the world, we should ponder what we should do to weather this unprecedented ordeal and make the world a better place to live.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.