It comes uninvited, with a challenge to us: How much can we exercise self-restraint and care for our neighbors? | Column by Seth Mountain (Spring 2020 issue)
The first official two-week stay-at-home order and ban on non-essential gatherings and businesses in South Korea will wrap up soon. What next?
Everywhere, there are stirrings of impatient energy. Students want to go back to school. People want to party. Businesses want to reopen their doors. Markets are in flux. Money that would normally be earned is being lost. Tax funds are being re-allocated to help hurting folks make it through this time. Government officials and the public faces of science and medicine urge citizens to keep vigilant. Everyone eyes the daily coronavirus numbers. Nearly all agree: We are making great progress. We are almost out of the roughest waters.
Outside, the cherry blossoms and magnolia flowers beckon. Inside, the tastes and smells of home become increasingly bland. Family members bicker. Bodies are restless. Surely we have waited long enough? Haven’t we basically won already? Look at us compared to other countries!
“You can never hold back spring.” The singer’s crooning words crawl under our skin, and warm our blood. The urge to celebrate is strong. And so is the feeling of having given up one’s rights to unfettered movement for too long. In fact, some never gave up what some think of as inalienable rights to begin with. Select churches continue to meet despite warnings. Various groups continue to party.
And new outbreaks continue to occur. Coronavirus doesn’t care about freedom.
New laws are laid down. These are not necessarily terrifying laws, given the context. However, some are noticeably stricter, more severe, than those of the past.
This defiant unwillingness to follow guidelines and warnings, and the implementation of these new laws, deserve our serious attention.
We are at a turning point in the battle against coronavirus. Here in Korea, we are also facing a necessary time of self-reflection. What does it mean to be free? And is it worth it?
To be clear: We don’t even remotely have this virus under control. The extent to which we do, though, stems mostly from our collective willingness to follow strict procedures, to believe science, and to limit the interaction patterns in our everyday lives. Still, we are averaging around 100 new cases a day.
As many an ancient freedom-loving mystic discovered and shared around the globe to any who would listen: “The road to yes often leads through no.”
It is tempting to compare South Korea’s relative success at battling the contagion with that of other countries that are completely in flames. It is horrifying to watch the death counts rise in Italy and the U.S. It also upsets many to hear of the measures of control meted out in China. In our weaker moments, we compare South Korea with other countries with quiet pride.
We know these comparisons are foolish. They feed false confidence and complacency, and replace pity and compassion with stupid, meat-headed variations of blind patriotism. Worse, they are dangerous not only to us in Korea, but to every group or nation that is currently modeling their resistance methods after ours. Slacking off and returning to “normal” before we reach the finish line almost certainly promises a devastating second wave, which could be much harder to control given collective frustration, fatigue, and a sense of failure after having come so close to success, and after having gained the world’s attention and praise.
A second wave could also open wide the doors to more authoritarian models of repression and control. These models will then be studied and emulated by other governments —-especially those who were less initially successful than South Korea in flattening the curve.
Let us not kid ourselves. April is a do-or-die month. A test of values. And how we in South Korea respond, collectively, as citizens, as foreign residents, and also at the government levels, will deeply influence not only our immediate future, but also the coming responses of governments in other countries and the lives of all who must follow their commands.
Asked for or not, there is a burden of responsibility that has been placed on the shoulders of every individual in South Korea today, involving much more than everyday life here on the peninsula. It is, in essence, the burden of demonstrating to a stressed and panicking world whether or not democracy and freedom of choice are viable realpolitik answers to this pandemic.
So far, we in South Korea have had a most fortunate experience. We have shown that in a time of chaos and fear we can work together to face and minimize a crisis calmly and effectively, with a government that serves the will of its people more than it controls them with violent measures. That South Korea has now become a sort of shining example to the world of how a democracy can respond swiftly and effectively in a mostly non-authoritarian way to a crisis of this nature and magnitude is more significant because of South Korea’s past as a country with long and severe periods of totalitarian rule and repression, and how recently the dictatorial model was taken down by people’s movements.
As I write, today is April 3. In Korea, it is nicknamed “4.3,” and known as a day for mourning and commemorating the tens of thousands of Jeju citizens murdered by South Korean soldiers and right-wing youth squads from the late 1940s through the Korean War. This crime against humanity was covered up for decades. Even today, some survivors and their family members are afraid to talk about it.
Thousands struggled to make this history known and to commemorate the lives lost. This determination attests to both the tragedy and triumph of the peoples’ movements for democracy in South Korea.
Whatever success South Koreans had in handling the coronavirus outbreak is also a testament to the vibrant democracy we now enjoy. Today, preserving that hard-won democracy depends on all residents taking responsibility for their own actions. We must act in consideration of the others’ welfare, and avoid the risks that personal behavior, from sightseeing to profiteering, can bring to others.
Can this last? Can we show the self-restraint and collective sacrifice necessary to truly flatten the coronavirus curve in South Korea for good?
We can. And we must. If we don’t, there is a Big Brother —- currently bound and asleep —- that could easily be woken up and untied. He is strongman with blood-stained hands who knows how to do the job very efficiently. His means are not pretty. They can be studied in Jeju, Gwangju, and many other places in South Korea. His ways are infamous, and we know them well.
Generations of activists have fought and died while struggling to subdue and bind this giant. In fact, the giant’s brothers still rule many neighboring regions. And his methods are commonplace in several of the countries that are watching South Korea closely during this crisis. And even here in South Korea, many feel nostalgia for his efficient ruling style, especially during times of uncertainty and chaos.
Frederick Douglass famously said that no progress is gained without struggle. We in South Korea —- citizens and foreigners alike —- pride ourselves on the freedom we enjoy daily, and we recoil from anything that restricts our behavior or speech. The idea of “Hell Joseon,” a reference to the oppressive and excessively conservative government of the recent past, still exists in many ways. However, when it comes to personal expression the right to speak out against injustice and to live as one sees best, this is not our grandparents’ country.
In our better moments, we praise the sacrifices of past freedom fighters in ceremonies, TV dramas, and popular books. We all know the important dates denoting moments when Koreans threw off oppression by their nicknames: 3.1, 4.3, 4.19, 5.18, 8.15. We have not forgotten the struggles that paved the way for us. But are we able to accept the freedom to say no? The freedom and responsibility to not-do?
As the story goes, Ung-nyeo, the bear-turned-mother of all Koreans, became human not through fighting an evil enemy, but by self-isolating in a cave for 100 days, sustaining herself on only garlic and mugwort. The road to yes often runs through no. Hers is a model we would do well to remember and reflect upon today.
But our struggle must also be collective. All or nothing. Everybody or nobody. Those of us who can stay at home, and those who have extra savings: Our freedom depends on us not only staying home, but also on the generosity we show our neighbors who cannot isolate, who have no savings, and in far too many cases, who have no home in which to wait it out.
Coronavirus has come uninvited, and brought with it a test for all of us. How much do we value our current freedom? Coronavirus doesn’t care how we respond. But in a democracy, this contagion can only be subdued by people who understand that freedom requires self-restraint and caring for neighbors. The curve can only be flattened by collective effort.
Coronavirus reminds us that we are all in this together, and that without an ethic that puts the health of the society over the instant gratification of the individual, our individual freedoms are a fiction at best, and a grave danger at worst.
How do we stop coronavirus in 2020, as free people in a free country?
With freedom, hopefully. Freedom earned through struggle, and manifested through self-restraint and solidarity, is the way to bring this pandemic to a halt. Laws or no laws, bans or no bans, it’s up to us. For as long as we wish to remain free, we must be willing and able to say no to instant gratification, and yes to the needs of others.
Coronavirus doesn’t care about our freedom. Do we? Is it worth the wait?
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Seth Mountain is a poet, musician, and activist currently living and working in Korea who regularly performs for social justice causes. He is a contributing member of the online podcast, “Contemporary Rebellions: South Korea’s Social Movements Today.”