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Letters against Separation – Hanmin Kim in Seoul

30th March, 2020

Hi Paulo,

It always took a while for you to reply, but this time it makes me worry a bit. Are you still in New York or did you manage to evacuate to Portugal? Yes, I used the word evacuate. I’m checking the CMMID Repository on an almost daily basis, and I’m noticing that Portugal looks much better than NY; only 2995 cases, 43 dead. What a cruel ‘only’… Please go back home if you can, unless you are there already which I doubt is the case. Is it even possible for a diplomat to ask to return? Perhaps not.

I’m doing okay (I refrain from using the word ‘great’ or ‘fine’ these days). Since I came back last year I’m still in Seoul – in the same little place near the Portuguese embassy – working for the same NGO, the environmental one. Do I continue to go to work? Yes, I still go to the office since I don’t have to commute which means less contact with people. Do I keep writing books? Well, not much but I try to make time to do some stuff. In fact, I’ll be participating in a project which requires me to keep a 10-day “COVID-19 diary” for an on-line magazine. Mike, who organized this project, mentioned about keeping the spirit of a diary, but as I have never kept a diary in my entire life, I needed an interlocutor and couldn’t come up with a better one than you. As you read this you will come to understand why it had to be you. So anyway, this should be at best a quasi-diary just like The Book of Disquiet, but hope you find it a little treat in this time of desassossego.

So, how’s life in the UN headquarters during the outbreak? From what I see in the movies, it should keep you guys busier, especially workaholics like you. I can easily picture you leaving the office very late, defying state orders and continuing to stroll around the avenues to grab a beer which makes me both smile and nervous at the same time. Or are you, for the first time, taking your health and safety seriously and stay at home? I’ve always thought that you are the exact opposite of Koreans in that regard.

Yes, I guess we did take relatively good care of the situation. Apparently, Korea is even ‘giving lessons’ to the world now. The country’s handling of COVID-19 has been widely praised in the international media, and the government has proudly announced that more than 80 governments have reached out for our help. Let me read you an article entitled “ Korean Model Seems the Most Effective ”: Most economic activities never stopped. No part of the country was quarantined. Quick response with systematic testing, rigorous quarantine and civic engagement are the keys to the government’s success. As the number of new infections drops, the country is closer to getting back to normal. End of quote. Wow, looks pretty good, doesn’t it? This piece is from Asianews, a press agency of the Vatican. When you take into account the scary number of deaths in Italy, it’s understandable that many view us as an example to follow.

So, did we actually tame the pandemic? Too early to tell, but I can clearly witness the calm after the storm. While the COVID-specter is ruthlessly haunting Europe, the US and other countries, there’s a shared sentiment that we more or less busted the ghost here. This relief is visible in the streets, parks, pubs and cafes. Especially in the mountains. Koreans are known to be hiking-lovers, and yesterday and today, two days in a row, I encountered senior people singing out loud on their way up to the mountain.

Were they celebrating their own survival? Nobody can blame people for cheering up a bit in the wake of spring, but I must confess it disturbed me. Not only because so many people are still suffering (even in Korea there are hundreds of infected cases daily), but it also had something to do with their faces and voices. There was something militant, almost aggressive and carnivorous I’d say… or perhaps it was just me. What I can surely say though, is that a sense of complacency is permeating the minds of Koreans who have grown increasingly sick and tired of this prolonged État des urgences . They can’t wait to officially claim ‘victory’, that this game is over.

But would you, dear friend, prefer to hear the real story? I’m not in self-isolation and never have been, but not being able to find the right person to talk to, I’m desperate to share the story ‘behind the scenes’. And who would make a better listener than you? Who else can echo my discontented ramblings akin to that of the Notes from the Undergrounds, which I so often shared with you over a nice Lisbon Imperial? (although you never had just one pint).

I would bet a patent of COVID-19 vaccine that my version of the story would be unpopular and disapproved of by most Koreans, or regarded as a far-right position intent on undermining every single achievement of the current government. In fact, there seems to be no option other than taking one of the two sides in this polarized society. From the beginning, when a friend of mine contacted me for this project, I thought: how funny it is that I, out of every one, am ‘representing’ this country. You said I was the only Korean you had met who was not offended by any criticism on Korea during your 4 years of service in this country!

But before I start, WRITE ME! Also, do stay safe and consider smoking less, if that’s a possibility. They say it increases your vulnerability to the virus. I’m sure you’ll hate this last sentence.

Um abraço,

4 Likes

31st March

Nothing from Paulo. I’m getting worried. Also getting irritated with this prevailing national pride. I met yet another guy who was so proud of what “we Koreans achieved.” Come on, it’s not over. No way near. And let’s be honest, maybe we did a good job for now, but we also got quite lucky, didn’t we?

What luck, you might ask. I can give you a number of explanations, but let’s start with the most controversial one. I think our biggest disease prevention failure was a blessing in disguise. Rewind to mid-February. Korea was in the same shithole everybody else is in right now. Although there were still not many cases and we were better prepared with standard operating procedure (SOP) established after previous experiences with SARS and MERS, it was clear that a different storm was looming around the corner.

Every media outlet was throwing out any tiny little update related to COVID-19 24/7. Confusion, or tension, if not fear, was palpable among the people who either started blaming the lack of leadership and clear instructions from the government, or expressing outright Sinophobia. Korean tourists returning from Wuhan faced ice-cold NIMBY reactions from residents of the provinces which were “forced” to host public isolation facilities. Panic buying and stock pilling began. Instead of toilet paper, masks were the hot commodity. People were outraged with the breaking news about huge numbers of protective masks being shipped to China by our own government amid domestic supply shortages. The opposition party and conservative media quickly jumped in, channeling the rage and hatred towards the president’s “failure.” The administration’s approval rating was dropping day by day.

Then the narrative took a sharp turn around 20th February, if I’m not mistaken. I clearly remember that week. Suddenly the search word “no. 31” was trending in every online portal like crazy and we were looking at a sudden exponential soar of infected cases. The number meant patient #31, a woman, 61 years old, and a resident of the city of Daegu. The super-spreader, the game changer has been singled out! Even her photo was going viral until it turned out to be a fake.

She never visited China nor Wuhan, but the key fact was that she had attended a church service which resulted in this spillover explosion. COVID cases in Daegu doubled, tripled, and kept skyrocketing. There were people dying while waiting to be tested. Now the epicenter of COVID-19 was Korea, more precisely Daegu. As if this wasn’t enough, the church in question turned out to be none other than the shadowy “Shincheonji Church of Jesus,” a fringe religion widely regarded as heretical by mainstream institutions. Shincheonji means “brand new world,” and it literally did lead us into uncharted territory, not necessarily less dystopian than Huxley’s version. So why am I saying this was a blessing in disguise?

As I said, Korea was pretty much following the pattern of confusion of almost any other country until patient #31 and the Shincheonji church appeared on stage. There you go, the anti-hero, the perfect villain. Marginal, cultish, fanatic and indoctrinating, wrongdoing, secretive, selfish, reckless, disobedient idiots … There couldn’t be a better public enemy to cast blame on. Wait, there could have been, maybe.

I read that in Spain, rallies for International Women’s Day, which brought tens of thousands onto the streets, are considered one of the reasons for the explosion of COVID-19 in the country. If that happened in Korea, with its widespread misogyny, just imagining the scale of sexist hatred that would have been directed towards these women gives me the shivers. Of course, there’s significant anger among Spaniards towards the authorities who allowed this event to happen, but it doesn’t seem to be targeted at individuals or specific minority groups, like it is here.

In short, everyone seemed to regroup around Shincheonji members to pour out furious criticism. And witnessing this overwhelming public outrage, one couldn’t but quickly learn the lesson: stay home, social distance, cancel all events, do whatever the authorities tell you to do, put your bloody mask on. If you don’t have one, make one. Absolutely avoid getting infected at all costs, otherwise you will be the next Shincheonji, which means you will literally get shredded to pieces.

So, the government didn’t even need to go out and scold noncompliant people like Italian mayors have had to. (Actually, President Moon Jae-In himself was criticized for having a good time, inviting the Oscar-winning filmmaker and his crew to the Blue House when the disease was spreading. Things were taken out of context a bit, but the optics were pretty bad, and optics do matter in emergencies). Instead, #31 and the church did the job, and everyone was sticking by the rules. Partially to avoid the virus, but equally because of the fear of ending up wearing the next Scarlet Letter.

The tone was set. It reminded me of when I was a kid in Sri Lanka. As you know, dear friend, since you’ve also visited Colombo recently, crows are abundant in every corner of the city and the local markets are no exception. As crows smartly steal food, market owners view them as a nuisance. So, once in a while, they would catch a crow, behead it, and hang the poor victim in front of the crowd. As a child, I was not only shocked by this cruelty to animals but also by the sheer fact that the execution worked. Crows got the message; this is what happens to you when you cross the line. Of course, there’s an expiration date on that message, so you eventually have to kill the next one to refresh memories, but it does the job for the moment. What matters is how the execution/prosecution is done. The more who willfully participate, the harsher the criticism is, the longer and the more effective you get the message across.

What I found disconcerting was not the fury of lay people, but the quick reaction of public leaders – the president, and the mayors of cities. It was a lucky moment to shift the blame, or to pursue political expediency. They either took a back seat and watched the scape-crow get “beaten up” by the public, or actively pointed the finger at them. Some even went further by filing a suit against the church. In the age of governments led by public leaders like Trump, who so casually points fingers at individuals, maybe this has become the new normal. Is it too naïve and nostalgic of me to expect leaders to at least try to condemn such behavior, not the individual or a specific group? Especially if it was more of a mistake, misjudgment, or mishandling, not an intentionally conceived plot? Isn’t it their duty to be as neutral as possible, or at least consider the minority, especially when most of them were still suffering in the hospital? I couldn’t help reflecting on the concept of the public. If all this is deemed to be for the sake of the public, aren’t we conflating the notion of public and majority?

I must say, however, that the church did nothing good. On the contrary, they didn’t follow instructions and even when it was apparent that they were the very petri dish from which the virus had emerged, they didn’t quickly cooperate with the authorities but delayed giving them the list of their members. But still, as irresponsible, crazy, clandestine, and unhelpful as they may be, they were also victims of the virus and they weren’t the only ones who hadn’t followed the rules by then. In fact, up to that point there were so many groups still organizing meetings, gatherings, and conducting business as usual. Actually, I’ve read that even after all this hassle, there were still 454 cases that violated social distancing rules of which 442 cases were religious gatherings. So, I found it ironic when the so-called “normal” church leaders hastily published articles criticizing Shinchoenji and distancing themselves from them, when, from my experience, their practices aren’t that different.

Nonetheless, the narrative was already rock solid. There was no questioning the dichotomy of “normal majority versus abnormal minority.” There was no doubt Shinchoenji was the Problem, the Virus in society. If it were not for them, nothing of this kind would have ever happened. Just like our neighbor Taiwan, we would have successfully fended off this external challenge, as we proud Koreans have always managed to do throughout our 5000 year history! Who dared to blemish this almost perfect handling but this stupid outlier!

As Shinchoenji became the official public enemy, the green light was given to punish them, hence their social prosecution. A petition calling for Shincheonji to be dissolved quickly received more than a million signatures. I’ve read articles that stated that companies were firing employees if he/she was discovered to be a Shinchoenji member. One Shincheonji female member died after falling from a window, allegedly after her husband was trying to make her leave the church. The police are investigating possible domestic violence. There were jokes (but not entirely jokes) circulating about a test to figure out who belongs to this church, because normally the members cautiously maintain their discretion. Very simple. You just have to force everyone to write down the sentence “Lee Man-Hee (name of the revered founding figure of this church) is a fucking dog” publicly, for example in your online group chat room. Genuine Shinchoenji members would never do that.

Surely this sounds unbelievably totalitarian and childish, but it does reflect the level of collective hatred directed at this group of believers which spread far more rapidly than the COVID-19 virus itself. I’m sure that if an average Korean read what I’m writing now, they would immediately suspect me and challenge me with the test!

It’s sad. Sad that the spirit of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” becomes totally obsolete and impertinent whenever a social crisis happens in Korea. But this isn’t, of course, the end of the story. We’re just about to begin.

Hey, are you going to write me back?

Bisous,

3 Likes

1st April

Hi Paulo, still no reply from you. Are you even reading this? If you don’t have time for an elaborate reply, just leave a short message, will you? That’d be much appreciated.

I was rambling about how Korea got a handy public enemy at the early stage of the outbreak and largely benefited from the repercussions it created in controlling the public. But one could argue that that kind of witch-hunt happens all the time. You have to consider another important factor: transparency.

Let me cut to the chase. Korea is not a transparent country, period. I’m talking about public transparency regarding public and private information. Every time you try to obtain some official information from institutions in the most legit way possible, the explanation you get is that it cannot be shared because they have to protect privacy. I campaigned intensively for better government transparency over the past three years, so believe me that I have a few words about this topic.

Then the virus came, and it was as if we became the world leader in transparency. During the COVID-19 outbreak, every smartphone user (100% of the Korean population has a mobile phone, of which 94% are smartphones, making us #1 in the world) was bombarded with emergency messages from the government. There were so many of them that I had to deactivate it, but most people found them quite useful, even allaying.

The messages provided information and warnings to respective districts whenever a new case was confirmed. They provided a detailed list of the last few places the patient had visited. At some point, you were even able to know their occupation, gender, age etc. These kind of approach is only comparable, I would say, with that of Singapore, where a detailed COVID-19 dashboard that allows status tracking is published, or Hong Kong, where all arriving passengers are outfitted with an electronic wristband linked to a mobile app. Since there were some pushbacks, some of the more personal or irrelevant info was not available anymore, but it seemed there was a consensus that this particular transparency was beneficial for all. Coupled with that, there were websites or apps that show all kinds of developments of new cases in almost real-time, which were, surprisingly, developed by some random students. Of course, the mainstream (and also the minor stream) media kept everyone busy with incessant breaking news stories. It seemed there was nothing else happening on earth except this bloody virus. In short, there was an avalanche of information so that you could easily spend the entire day monitoring the development.

What does this mean? Amplification. You didn’t need additional augmented reality technology because reality was already augmented. And most importantly, the fear of being infected was augmented. Not the necessary “appropriate fear” that requires one to take certain actions, but the highly amplified fear of imagining the wave of criticism and its consequences to be faced once one got infected. As I told you, after the Shinchoenji case, a subtle atmosphere was cultivated in which the infected person was viewed not as a victim anymore, but a burden on society who was a danger to others. One of my friends who worked for a small tech company told me that his boss explicitly said he will immediately fire anyone who gets infected, because that individual will “damage the community.” There were similar reports in the newspapers as well.

So, while people in other countries were worried about getting infected, Koreans had another worry; being exposed. If you can remain anonymous, you can just deal with your disease which is already a handful, but if the system is this transparent, that’s a whole different game. Of course, the system doesn’t give away your name, but it starts with your closest ones, your family for instance. They will get to know your patient number, have a look where you were, and connect the dots. That info can easily be spread. Ironically, this was actually quite effective in reducing extramarital affairs during this period. Because if you visit any “suspicious” place and catch the virus, it means that you could end up facing a divorce even if you overcame the disease!

There will be folks around the world saying, what a luxury, we don’t even have such a system, you should appreciate it! Also, many of my friends abroad were envious of Korea’s mass testing. Fair enough. I’m not saying we should hide things or don’t test, not at all. But if you experience this kind of frenzy of aggressive information campaigning, you may have a different view. Most Koreans are just too used to it to even think this could be too much. “If it’s effective, why question it?” That would be their general and simple response.

There can always be a debate about whether visualizing and real-time broadcasting of these sort of info is good or bad. But when I see headlines like “Korea shows that democracies can succeed against the coronavirus” (Washington Post), I can’t help but be skeptical. It wasn’t actually democracy that defeated the virus, nor was it a success story. Rather, it was fear and hatred that was successfully instilled and amplified. It was a social surveillance mechanism that was implemented in a timely manner. Maybe not an institutional totalitarian surveillance like that in China, but a subtler grassroots level surveillance. I have a frightening example of this, which happened just a week ago but hey, it’s time to go.

Really looking forward to reading (at least) a short message of yours,

2 Likes

2nd April

Dear Paulo,

My friend’s husband in New Jersey seems to be infected by COVID-19. His grandpa just passed away combatting it. Another friend of mine in Finland just tested positive. Dear Paulo, is there anyone you know who has also been affected, or should I ask anyone not affected? Because everybody is. It’s a matter of degree, if you think the life and death continuum is also a matter of degree.

I hope you are okay. This diary I’m writing had its original title as Virus Diary and now it’s changed to Letters against Separation . In fact, I liked the first one more but I think the latter goes better with what I am actually writing. As I write this, although it’s just a monologue than a reciprocal exchange yet, I can feel a kind of ‘we’ being invented that acts against isolation and separation. The only missing part is your reply. I know you will, soon. In fact, I even considered emailing João Pedro Rodrigues to ask if you are using the same email but I didn’t feel like pushing that button yet. Maybe I’ll wait one more day. You remember I ran into him in a swimming pool changing room last year? (obviously all naked) After that awkward encounter I haven’t wrote to him for such a long time, not even when his film came out, so it might sound a bit too pragmatic to break the ice just to ask about your email, wouldn’t it? By the way, what did you think about his latest work?

I’m sidetracking from the topic. But a dose of distraction wouldn’t hurt, especially these days. Sometimes it’s good to simply stop talking about what we can’t stop talking about, if that makes sense. I think the lesson of Decameron was exactly that. As we all know, Boccaccio wrote this in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence. Ten men and women escaped from the horror of the city and retreated to a country villa, spending day after day telling endless stories, sometimes amusing, sometimes obscene but not very relevant to the disease that might have been undoubtedly the hot issue of the time. Not surprisingly, lots of stories in Decameron is about sex. (I find the one about the young nuns who wished to ‘experience the highest pleasures of womanhood’ resulting in their ‘participation in the sin of sex’ especially amusing)

As you lived here for 4 years, you might know where the center stage of apparently invisible sexual activities is in Korea; “love motels”. Did I tell you that Koreans themselves were surprised about how many people actually go to those motels, after detailed routes of infected people were being publicized? There were numerous cases of complaints about “accidental” privacy invasion: A man was exposed to have been on an ‘unreported’ trip with his secretary, a woman who was suspected as a ‘call girl’ after frequently visiting Karaoke’s, a person whose trail had a ‘missing link’ around a railway station known to be a prostitution hotspot quickly being stigmatized… There were also, not necessarily prejudicial, but thought provoking entries like this: "43-year-old. Male. Nowon district resident. Tested positive. He was at his workplace in Mapo district, attending a sexual harassment class. Contracted the virus from the instructor”. ‘TMI’, isn’t it?

All this was a fruit of our glorious transparency. People might argue that it’s a great thing because once you know the route you can plan ahead and avoid certain places. But in fact, wouldn’t the “official risky places” be the safest places, because by that time they should be either closed or sprayed with disinfectant and has less people hence more social distance because it will have a warning sign put on? Damn it, I just can’t help returning to the topic. Now I’m failing to sidetrack! Let me continue with my behind-the-scene stories then. Where was I? Getting a public enemy and instilling fear, amplified anxiety by transparency and aggressive information campaigning, and ah yes, now I remember… social surveillance!

The incident happened a week ago, when nation-wide panic mode was only intensifying. A Thursday evening around 10 o’clock, I got a phone call from my friend Yoon who’s a radio producer. Her news was that some politicians visited her workplace to record an interview. After they left, two of them discovered that they previously had contact with a person who was just confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. The two congressmen were tested immediately. If the result came out positive, the entire staff including Yoon were going to isolate themselves. Did she have direct contact with any of the two? No, she just stayed a while in the same space. But it was deemed considerate to play it safe as a precautionary measure. We exchanged some jokes about what should each of us do in isolated times, and then hung up.

Next morning when she rang me again, I sensed a furious tone. Yoon had just been contacted by an unknown person who tried to interrogate her whether she was infected. She was bewildered by this abrupt “interpellation.” It was as if you were stopped by someone, not even an authority, in the street and asked “Excuse me, are you infected?” The man turned out to be the janitor of the building where Yoon resided. What happened was that when she called me yesterday, she was in the lobby of the building and there was a neighbor who overheard our conversation. The whole convo or only a part, we don’t know. Important thing is, this ‘witness’ took the initiative to investigate this ‘dangerous suspect’ and immediately reported this emergency to the building janitor, the janitor to the president of the resident representatives (such a thing even existed?) and the three emboldened citizens formed an ad-hoc task force, or Justiceiros , you must say in Portuguese.

Note that nobody ordered this. It was a purely autonomous action. They meticulously reviewed the CCTV record (who gave permission to?) and identified who Yoon was, and somehow managed to figure out her mobile number. They might have followed her until she got to her room. I know, from my experience, that getting into these CCTV data is very tricky. Even when a burglar broke into my house and I reported it to the police, I couldn’t get access. After going through unbearable bureaucracy procedures, you can easily get a negative answer that the information cannot be shared because of privacy issues. But this time, the operation was done lightning quick.

Yoon asked back. “Well, no. Actually, I am not infected. But let’s say if I were, what are you going to do with it?” The janitor hesitated to answer, but it was clear that these overzealous guys were more than capable to mobilize a meaningful action, in the name of the benefit (and security) of the majority. Yoon kept protesting that this clearly constitutes privacy invasion, that neither the janitor nor the other guys had any right to conduct this kind of investigation. And when Yoon asked how they got her private information and who this neighbor was, the janitor replied they couldn’t share the info because “it’s too sensitive”. Voilà, the perfect Althusserian interpellation. You can be interpellated by them , but not the other way around! And thus, a ubiquitous, participatory neo-panopticon, a citizen-led surveillance was successfully assembled. Remember that all this hassle was based on a single overheard phone conversation. You can imagine the level of paranoia Koreans were reflecting onto each other. When plague appears in town, as Foucault said, the gaze is alert everywhere. And sometimes, and in some places, the gaze is too alert.

XX

3 Likes

3rd April

Dear Paulo,

Since you remain silent, I have sent a Facebook message to our mutual friend João Tabarra. At least he looks more active than João Pedro and it feels much easier this way to just pop in and say hi than writing an e-mail. It was a very short text message so I didn’t ask about you yet, but I’m sure he’ll let me know your whereabouts because you two used to meet regularly. Hopefully he replies soon!

I’ve been reading lots of debates around masks; wear or not to wear. Honestly, I don’t even understand why this is still an issue. Seriously, do we need scientific research to have a conclusion about this? Isn’t it just using common sense? The fact is, C-virus is transmitted mainly by droplets. Then obviously it might help trapping droplets than not having anything. (Let’s don’t get into aerosol transmission. That’s a trickier question and facts are not established.) The simple point is who, when, how long and what kind. Again common sense. For example, priority must go to the front fighters, like medical staff and people who have to be in frequent contact with the public such as policemen. Next priority goes to the people with symptoms. Try to use masks in confined interior spaces such as buses, where you are forced to remain more than 15 minutes, and be within two meters so each other’s droplets could unintentionally get transmitted. Think twice that when you use one, someone more urgent might not have it.

The problem is, we became so non-commonsensical to a degree that we feel almost ‘publicly illiterate’. Unless the given message is black and white, like “wear it or not”, we cannot get it. We get so easily confused with just a little bit of elaborated explanation. We are getting increasingly incapable of making case-by-case decisions. When on earth did the task of ‘wearing a mask sensibly’ become sophisticated rocket science? Are we becoming stupid herds waiting for simplified homogenous orders? Or even then, we don’t get it?

And it’s not as if it’s just a problem of decision making. How are we going to supply this demand? What about the cost, garbage issue and environmental consequences when all this piles up? For example, in a strictly short-sighted hygiene perspective, maybe switching every single utensil in the world to single-use plastic could reduce the chances of contraction, but that’s not even possible let alone sustainable.

One thing I’m absolutely sure is, dear friend, you will never use masks, unless you are absolutely sure you got the virus. I can’t even picture you in it. In fact, wearing a mask for a long time is not the easiest task. It can affect respiration and end up harming the very health you intended to protect.

Health issue aside, I myself simply cannot stand more than 20 minutes of wearing it. I get extremely uncomfortable and constantly put it loose or take it off. But these days, so many Koreans seem to have become used to it, that some even forget that they have put one. I have no idea how they do this. I mean, not the people who are forced to, but those who voluntarily walk around in open air, in an empty street, with masks (some of them even industrial or surgical ones!).

I saw many jokes in Korean social media saying “masks are our new skin” and sadly it’s not a joke. Note that all this mass usage of masks happened way before the outbreak. Korea’s air is still not as polluted as in India, but the situation got worse combined with climate change and influence from nearby industry facilities in China etc. As the air condition deteriorated every year, particularly with fatal fine dust pollution, and as the government and health authorities strongly recommended using a mask, more and more people started to buy into the idea. In a matter of months, the majority got used to it. (This shows how ‘unified’ Korea is as a nation, and how homogenous it is, but that’s requires another chat!) Now you can easily see people routinely enjoying a walk or even jogging in the park with their masks. I found these scenes particularly uncanny and did several drawings. I’ll show you later if I find them.

This mask ‘culture’ or behavior is another thing Korea got lucky regarding the handling of COVID-19. You need to get two things ready to consider masks as a mitigation tool: supply and habit. We had them both. With our recent air pollution disaster (I’m not exaggerating, the government officially announced it as a national disaster last year) we were extremely well equipped. We were also excellently ‘trained’. Especially from late December to early spring, when the pollution peaks, the usage ratio tends to be very high. In short, we were going to wear masks anyway.

Today morning, I was hurrying to catch a bus only to realize I didn’t bring my mask with me. Dang. I had to worry, once again, about the gaze of others as much as about potential infection. People would give reproachable looks at someone without a mask, especially inside a bus. Even a relatively ‘insensitive’ person like me got this bloody gaze internalized.

Obviously, mask using isn’t just an unspoken rule. In many shops and most of the elevators in buildings, for instance, you are not allowed to enter unless you put a mask on. My friend has to use her mask all the time inside her office, and she told me it’s common practice in many work places. In her building, there is a grid mark inside the elevator which clearly indicates the boundary in which each of the nine people should occupy.

Wearing a mask is no longer mere recommendation. It became a norm, a social signifier, an act of respect and a civic duty you are supposed to fulfill in these times. No matter how much the emphasis goes to hand washing, no matter who says what from abroad (i.e. the US Surgeon General), masks became absolutely indispensable in this country. If Koreans are ‘in war’ against the pandemic, it should be our first and foremost armor.

After a moment of hesitation, I got into the bus. Fortunately, it wasn’t crowded. I noticed a young man on a seat in the back row, quickly pulling his mask up as soon as he read a sign in my face which may be interpreted as ‘ potential virus carrier’ . His rapid action and focus, reminded those of the fastest gun drawers from Western movies. For the first time of my life, I learned that wearing a mask can be an aggressive act. There’s so more to contemplate about this object. It would be very interesting to imagine what Vilém Flusser, one of your favorite authors, would have had to say about the gesture of wearing a mask .

Missing our conversations,

2 Likes

5th April

Very strange. João did accept my Facebook friend request but didn’t reply to my message. That puts me in the ‘accepted but not reply-worthy’ friends category. This happens a lot when you follow a public figure on social media, yet uncommon among real ‘offline’ friends. Once again, I find myself wondering whether I should send another message or just wait a bit more. Maybe João simply thought it wasn’t urgent. Is it urgent, after all? Well, I can’t wait to hear from Paulo, but I guess he’s alright, and there’s no reason I should be urgently looking for him just because he is supposed to be in New York. Or should I be? If so, should I craft a message with a more urgent, or at least a more worried, tone?

In this era of instant communication where we’re able to check if the recipient has read a message and at what time, we find ourselves making interpretations about the most trivial things. Even between friends, we tend to think a great deal to hit the right tone, almost a tone of nonchalance, in order not to be viewed as pushy or desperate, for example, throwing an emoji or a smile here and there. However, diseases such as this give you extra motivation or at least allows us to take a step further. After all, it’s a great pretext to say hello to a person you have forgotten to write to for a while. That’s why more and more people are getting reconnected ‘thanks to’ the pandemic.

Dire situations have their merits. They make us think hard about our priorities, more than ever, and shape our mentalities to adopt a minimalist approach. You streamline your schedule and single out the indispensables. Every meeting or gathering is cancelled unless it’s absolutely necessary. Keep subtracting until only the essentials remain.

Early on, when the pandemic wasn’t officially a pandemic, I received emails from our head office in London (as I work in a branch in Seoul) ordering the staff to cancel all non-essential trips. The first question that popped up in my mind was; what is an essential trip? What’s the criteria, and who decides? In his recent article The World after Coronavirus , historian Yuval Harari argues that certain things must continue despite the emergency, such as essential travels. “Countries need to co-operate in order to allow at least a trickle of essential travelers to continue crossing borders: scientists, doctors, journalists, politicians, businesspeople.” Wait, did he say businessmen? That opens a whole different door. Why are they deemed essential, and if they truly are, are some businesses more essential than others? What about the travels of NGO workers?

In our organization, long before COVID-19, work related travels were not easily approved. Budget issue aside, we couldn’t take our CO2 emission for granted being an environmental NGO. Every staff was required to thoroughly filter out non-essential travel by asking whether the trips truly ‘added value’ in achieving their goals. Although many trips could be replaced by online communication, quite a lot of travel was still justified because we all agreed that it was much better to work face-to-face. International conferences or meetings were equally preferred to be offline for the same reason. Same with filming interviews (we also produce films for campaigns). You could record a Skype or Zoom call which is quite common these days, but a well shot, face-to-face interview is always better. But if someone asked if all this was absolutely essential one might scratch their head. Well, perhaps not really. So, roughly put, being essential means eliminating the bettering . Our current life is clearly not about pursuing the better, but about life per se.

And then I see this pro-life protest going on in the street. Even during this emergency regime, these three women never fail to show up every morning, and enjoy their rights to manifest. With anti-abortion messages on each of their placards, they stand right in front of the Constitutional Court of Korea where abortion has been ruled constitutional, in a historic court decision last year. Although I strongly oppose their position, at least their efforts got me to stop and think. Do I, or do we “progressives” (if that denomination is still relevant at all) want something as badly as these people do? Is there something so essential that, no matter what consequence or criticism you face, you unwaveringly continue to do what you do? Having that level of ‘fanatic’ conviction in what I believe is certainly what I lack. Although I am serious about everything I do, you know very well, Paulo, that I am a man of endless doubts. If someone were to ask whether my life is essential, I may reply, “let me think about it.”

Let’s say this essentialist approach is inevitable in these exceptional times. Still, there is a fundamental problem. This essentialism is exempt from addressing the essence, in other words, questioning the root cause of the problem. Benign questions about instructions are welcome: Should we wear masks? Until when should we maintain social distance? Is the government going to pay us an emergency income? How much? And so on. But raising essential questions are not welcome, because they aren’t… essential.

In terms of addressing the root cause of COVID-19, I think the West is doing better, at least in the media sphere. Among the English, French, Portuguese, and German medias I follow, there are a significant number of articles viewing this crisis as a ‘warning from nature.’ Many of them display earnest reflections about our relationship with nature and animals – both wild and domestic. They urge us to rethink and rebuild our relationship with nature, and are particularly critical about human encroachment into nature. Many of them call for a total ban on wildlife trade. One could always say the cause is not 100% proven (and it never will be) but every established fact does point to the COVID-19 virus being transferred from pangolins as intermediate hosts, with wet markets being the petri dish of COVID-19 and other zoonosis diseases.

Unfortunately, in the Korean media, these discourses are almost nonexistent. The overwhelming majority cares only about other things that are more essential to them; Korea’s good handling of COVID-19 compared to other countries, how to reboot the economy, emergency finance assistance, the health care system, election issues etc. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that a nation that is apparently ‘championing’ this effective essentialist approach is one of the worst in addressing the root cause.

Will people care about the root cause later? This hasn’t happened yet. Look at what the Chinese government is doing now. They are still allowing wildlife trade related to Chinese medicine (TCM), fur, and research, which is such a glaring loophole you cannot even say it is a ‘hole.’ As if that’s not enough, at this very moment, the government is promoting bear bile to treat COVID-19, not to mention the pangolin scales still on sale for the same treatment. Similar things happened with SARS. They temporally closed wet markets but reopened them very soon after. In the fishery sector, the Chinese government is proposing to relax regulations on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) fishing. I’m pretty sure that addressing the root cause of COVID-19 is not on their minds, and same with Koreans. They just want to go back to business as usual, as soon as possible.

So far the failure of the West seems to have accentuated our success. When we were in panic mode we thought our handling of the situation was pretty bad. Then Italy failed, Europe failed, and the US failed miserably. And we felt we had every reason to feel good about ourselves (I think the case of US was most shocking for Koreans because – believe it or not – many of us still regard this country as a golden standard). However, it’s premature, inconsiderate and ignorant to utter words like failure or success. In the long run, perspectives could change about the real benefits of different strategies.

If we continue to repeat this kind of approach to disasters, no matter how efficient we are, it will only be a nice ad-hoc, superficial approach at best. We will merely repeat the same problem in a different fashion with different casualties. This is my biggest concern. That this kind of ‘solution’ will be replicated as an exemplary case. Unless emergency measures are adopted while addressing the root cause, we will all pay the price again, and our country people might not be able to avoid being the biggest victims one day.

It seems, increasingly, that when all is said and done, only ruins will remain, some less dilapidated than other, but ruins nonetheless. Not a single success story.

More soon,

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7th April

Remember my drawings of the Korean strollers and joggers with masks, Paulo?
I found them.

Actually, they are not only wearing masks, but have ‘full protection’ as you can see. I have to repeat that this is not an exotic depiction of an exceptional case, but a common way of life here, even before the pandemic. You will see it more often these days. Frankly speaking, I don’t get what they are protecting themselves against. Air pollution, ultraviolet radiation, droplets and virus… okay, but at some point it looks as if they are seeking protection from life itself.

When you completely shut yourself off from the environment, going to the park is no longer about enjoying nature. Nor is it about relaxing for a moment, saying a casual hello to a neighbor, a friendly nod to a passerby. Nor savoring of the subtle changes of seasons. Even the scarce interactions with nature are either intermediated by smartphones as people take photos of flowers (to post on Instagram?) or involve teaching kids to catch (poor) tadpoles in ponds for ‘education.’ All of a sudden, a park is reduced to an outdoor fitness center, a stroll to mere exercise, nature to backdrops for our Instagram posts (extending this a bit more, I think we reduced this whole nation to a huge convenience store).

Also note that everyone carries their mobile phones in their hand or on their arms, sometimes in hands-free mode to talk with someone during the exercise to ‘make the most of their time.’ The way they forcibly swing their arms (a trendy ‘power walking’ move also believed to have health benefits) and their determined fast movement so focused on their objective (to lose weight or to be fit etc.) embodies the extremely efficient and utilitarian yet artificial way of life we have become used to. These grim scenes have permeated throughout our society so much that we have never given thought to how alien it can be.

Obviously, these scenes are only grim and foreign to me, or to the very few, not the clear majority. In fact, when I wrote a graphic essay in the newspaper about this topic, I was criticized for ‘unfairly offending ordinary people and promoting hatred’! Of course, I’m not saying it’s their fault. They are probably just making the best of what they’ve got. And I’m also not expecting everyone to undertake contemplations like those of Robert Walser during their daily walks. What I can’t help seeing, however, is that these snapshots of our everyday lives display the triumph of utilitarianism that is reducing us more and more into survival machines, isolated from the nature.

I think I have already given you many examples of why Korea was ‘strangely’ prepared for COVID-19. Here’s another. The dirty little secret of Koreans: they think every one else is dirty. Foreigners would never hear them express this explicitly, but how many times have I heard Koreans returning from their travels and complain about how dirty the country was? Perhaps this attitude applies to many other countries as well but I think it comes from a particular ‘hygiene sensitivity’ Koreans share.

Let’s start with a mild case. A friend of mine worked as a manager in a Starbucks shop. Because of a recent plastic-reducing initiative from the Ministry of Environment, he told his staff to strip off the plastic wrapping of bananas. Yes, even bananas were wrapped in plastic, and no, the friend (actually a friend of a friend) was not even remotely interested in environmentalism. He just ordered what was ordered. What happened is, the entire staff issued a joint-complaint against this order because “touching bare bananas” are dirty and dangerous due to contaminants or pesticides on the peels. In the end, that guy had to be relocated. The banana controversy didn’t end there. The Ministry’s initiative to strip off banana packages (limited to the biggest supermarkets) faced more challenges than expected. Although some people agreed with the idea, many more were complaining that it’s not clean and puts health at risk. Yes, I’m talking about peeling a fucking banana with your hands! Some people around the world are posting pictures of their local grocery stores using more single use plastic due to COVID-19. We started that long ago, and became the plastic heaven (Does Korea being the plastic surgery capital of the world, with its highest rate per capita, have something to do with this? Worth giving a thought…).

Not surprisingly, as soon as the COVID-19 outbreak was official, one of the first things the Ministry of Environment did was announce that coffee shops and beverage outlets would be allowed to offer single use plastic cups again (which was, in fact, already allowed despite the ban for indoor consumption). In fact, many of the cafes I visited were adamant about not offering mugs even though I insisted. They firmly said “we prioritize your health” when I knew so well that they simply hate to wash cups and don’t give a damn about the environment. Years and years of campaigning against single-use plastics were crippled within a month.

What about water-tissues and wet wipes. These items are so widely used in Korea that even the most committed environmentalist would not have a problem using them. In restaurants they don’t only wipe their hands with theme, but also their forehead, the back of their neck, and in the summer, even their arm pits. If you look at their faces with a startled look they wouldn’t have a clue why. Once, I asked a British friend of mine whether you guys would also do face cleaning with this tissue and he said it’s such a novelty it would take a while to adapt. I know a family that not only brings their own wet-wipes to restaurants to make sure they clean the table, but even after that thorough operation, never let their spoons and chopsticks touch the surface of the table because it’s still filthy and full of bacteria. I have no doubt that they have had no problem whatsoever surviving COVID.

Do you think these are exceptional cases of mysophobia, or do they exists in every country? Let me ask you, because you travel a lot, have you ever seen a person, inside an airplane, begin to brush their teeth outside the toilet, and some times even when moving along the aisle? If so, there’s a very high chance that you’re dealing with a Korean. I think the only reason why Koreans don’t brush their teeth in the bus or subway is because there is no toilet or water basin. Even in a dance club, I have been surprised to see people brushing their teeth to get rid of a bad smell in their mouth. Does this sound like well-mannered behavior? Maybe, but the fact is they didn’t even bother to do it in the toilet, but at the very side of a bar where people were drinking and dancing. Furthermore, the bar was offering single-use tooth brushes for free! Am I the only one who thinks this is gross?

If you think these cases show how far Koreans can go with hygiene, I have more. Just as violence in Korean movies has its unique rawness, the Korean notion of hygiene has its own peculiarly brutal dimension. A Korean friend working in Europe as a tour guide, mainly receiving Korean tourists, told me an unbelievable story. So many Koreans do absurd stuff while traveling, like eating barbecue inside a hotel etc., so I thought I had heard it all. But this was certainly off the charts. In a hotel she was working with, the management discovered that some Korean tourists had put their socks in the electric water kettle! Allegedly, after washing their socks, they wanted to make sure the lurking fungus were properly killed…

This epitomizes the notion of Korean hygiene. We are too clean that we end up making the world around us much dirtier! We are the ultimate surface sanitizers, wiping out things under the table. But in the bigger picture, especially in public spaces, we are not clean at all. It’s not what you see, for instance, in the streets of Japan or Switzerland. Not only are the Korea streets not that tidy but, on the contrary, many urban areas are flat out dirty. The notion of cleanliness is also quite incongruent. Soups or stews are frequently served ensemble in the same dish. Many public toilets use ‘communal soap.’ And the worst part: as a foreign blogger once wrote in Korea “Loogie spitting is a religion”, so much so that even the Coronavrius failed to slow it down. I have seen so many people spitting up under their masks. Although this should have been banned long ago, nobody is taking any action. If we are letting people spit around, why try so hard to spray disinfectants in the streets?

As we all know, the cleaning of dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is the best practice for the prevention of COVID-19, so the Koreans’ ‘freaky mastery’ of sanitization, especially regarding surfaces, has done as pretty well. If I were COVID, I would have said that these guys are crazy, let’s get the hell out of here! Is this a good thing? I don’t know.

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4 days ago (4th April) - the one I couldn’t write on the day

Saturday.

Now the world is flat, not fair.

So many things have halted, even the global economy. A stop that nobody thought was even possible is happening right in front of our eyes. COVID-19 stopped so many things that it’s more interesting to see what it didn’t stop.

Apart from the medical workers who are ‘on the front line,’ who are the people still working as if nothing remarkable is happening? Or, who isn’t allowed to work from home?

Construction workers continue to work, though I haven’t observed a visible change in their practices because they have always had to use masks. But the guys I had a chat with were complaining that work has halved since the outbreak. In general, they seem nonchalant about the Coronavirus. They view social distancing and staying at home as a luxury, as it actually is in many places around the world, for example, like the slums of urban India. Choosing between saving life and saving economy isn’t an either/or question to many of us.

Another younger worker showed off some macho bravado, saying that if he got COVID-19 he would easily overcome it with his superior “immune system that has been rebooted by the dogs.” Obviously, he was referring to the dogs he has been eating (Eating dog meat is still common in Korea, although less popular than before). But he does worry a bit that he might bring the virus home and infect his wife and kids.

At least construction workers are easy to break the ice with. You just have to approach them during lunch time when they are relaxed and have a smoking break. Cashiers are more difficult to catch for a quick chat. I got lucky because my line was empty. A cashier in her mid 40s told me that she doesn’t worry too much about being infected because there are much less consumers. The one who is getting nervous, however, is her boss. A.C. revenue is less than one third of B.C. (Before Corona) revenue. If you know Korea, you can easily guess what the reason for this is. It’s not that people are buying much less. Surely consumer power shouldn’t be the same, but that’s not the biggest reason. It’s delivery.

Even before the pandemic, Korea was the world capital of delivery. The nation takes pride in ‘exporting’ its enterprise to many other countries. Even the stockpiling, which also happened here in the early stages of the spillover, was less visible in the supermarkets than it was in other countries as many of us were so used to ordering items online. As such, another working group that had no time to stop was the delivery guys. There are reports that show how delivery orders have soared since the outbreak, as well as the unbelievable amount of package garbage. Just as for the construction workers, for the delivery guys social distancing and staying at home doesn’t mean shit.

Now the world is flat, not equal. Corona is certainly indiscriminate in choosing its victim, even some countries Prime Minister and Prince, but how one is treated is different, and that little difference may result in totally different outcomes. Some people simply cannot take a day off. They just pray to (I don’t know which) God that they can narrowly escape the virus, knowing that they don’t have an option.

Film crews also soldier on. Somebody has to go out there, catch something and come back to feed the bored people in their respective sofas. I asked a cameraman who was participating in a shooting session not very far from my house how COVID-19 had impacted his life. “How? What do you mean? Guys like us, we don’t even ask that question, ‘cause we know that if I don’t show up, they’ll find somebody else in a second who is ready to fill in.” “So you’re working non-stop, aren’t ya?” “Same old shit, bro. SAMO.”

I read an article in Politico that criticized the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who despite testing positive for COVID-19 was broadcasting from home, sharing his symptoms while fighting the disease. The author of the article argued that his attitude, although impressive, reinforced the myth of American industriousness and the ‘fighter’ image as the golden standard of ultimate professionals.

Why can’t we simply rest? Why can we not help but be productive? Some people have to be productive because otherwise they fear their family will starve. Some people work because they understand how expendable they are. Some because they need to prove how professional and strong they are. Some because they want to ‘inspire’ others. Some because they are simply too bored to be unproductive. Therefore, everyone has a reason to be productive, but not vice versa. Being productive means, literally, producing something. Bruno Latour said, in his recent text published on his website;

“(…) after a hundred years of socialism limited just to the redistribution of the benefits of the economy, it might now be more a matter of inventing a socialism that contests production itself . Injustice is not just about the redistribution of the fruits of progress, but about the very manner in which the planet is made fruitful .” (it seems to be a quote from Pierre Charbonnier)

Spot on. But the following line I don’t like. He quickly adds, “this does not mean de-growth, or living off love alone or fresh water.” I understand his unwillingness to water fast but what’s wrong with de-growth or living off love alone? Anyway, it’s true that we are all docile disciples, products of this productive era. No matter what political line we endorse, most of us has imbedded within us the inclination to be productive, and we cannot just stop, even in the most ‘stoppable times’ of our lives.

Yet I find myself, on a Saturday morning, in front of a bloody slaughterhouse. Why? Because I am also producing something… How should I justify my own productiveness? Let me, at least, be honest. Nobody told me to do this. I’m producing a documentary film called “The Pessimist” and we need to get footage of livestock being ‘processed.’ I use single quotation marks because I don’t like the euphemism. And I realize that there’s another non-stop conveyer belt even at this turbulent times. Animal killing.

I’ve read in the newspapers that meat and dairy consumption is plummeting in many countries and the industry is really struggling due to the C-virus. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Korea. Maybe when the soy bean supply from Brazil (of which Korea is no.2 worldwide) runs out, they will have problems feeding up their pigs and chickens, but until that happens the meat supply (and demand, obviously!) looks pretty steady.

Almost every 30 minutes, pigs arrive in a big truck, closely crammed together. Along with our film crew, there are five activists and volunteers seemingly belonging to an animal rights organization. We, the uninvited visitors, are not able to approach the vehicle because the guard of the slaughterhouse is irritated. He yells at us and forces us to back up. He uses COVID-19 as a good excuse, accusing us of “putting everyone at risk by approaching the animals in these sensitive times”. As we stand our ground, he threatens us. “Do you want me to spray you guys off?” We have to settle with watching the pigs, or the victims, from a certain distance, slowly being moved into the facility.

Now we can barely see the pigs behind the bars being forcibly herded inside. Squeals come out. Just a few months ago, Korea culled 400,000 hogs due to African Swine Flu. Now, mass culling of animals is not questioned. It has become part of the system. The authorities detect an epidemic. Government orders the cull. Certain companies which specialize in mass culling, waiting for a big pay check, execute the cull. Factory farms get compensated by the state. The pigs are buried. Bye bye, end of story. And that repeats. Sometimes pigs, sometimes chickens. Why cull all of them instead of singling out the diseased animals taking more careful measures? Because Korea is keen to maintain the status of “a clean nation” for trade purposes which means the government cannot afford time for treatment, hence the easy solution.

Hearing the squealing, no, the screaming from outside, I cannot help but compare the situation with our current one. If we apply the above-mentioned logic to us human beings, we should have simply culled 2 million citizens in Daegu city. Italy should have culled the people in Lombardy. US, the entire New York population etc. Yet it’s an outrageous blasphemy to even imagine it. Of course, no one will agree with this comparison between human and non-human animals, except when you are reading Orwell’s Animal Farm . But when you hear the screams coming out from this Animal Factory Farm, you just know that we are all the same in not wanting to die. At least not like this.

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10th April

At last. I can’t be more excited to have received your reply. Now my letters can finally be named Letters against Separation! So, you little devil, I knew you would be alright and I was right! It sounds like your life hasn’t changed much, even during this horror movie that the whole city of New York has turned out to be. I’m not surprised that you are enjoying online meetings in pajamas and you feel better off alone. Being able to enjoy one’s own company is crucial in these times, for those who can afford isolation. I loved your description of the empty streets in NY, where you saw that sea gull leisurely walking on the sidewalk, as if it was looking for future real-estate! You haven’t changed a bit. The same old Paulo I know; though a bit of a workaholic, you always have a few seconds for a joke. I’m sure you’ll never panic, not even in the direst times.

It might be unnecessary to tell you of my whereabouts as you can read about them in my previous letters. Did you get why I chose you as the recipient? You must have. As anyone who reads my diaries can notice, I am dedicating this platform to talk to the ‘outside world’, almost exclusively to undermine the ‘achievements’ of which my fellow countrymen are so proud. Even you confirmed it, that Korea’s approach is being praised and constantly mentioned as the best example at your work place, the UN Headquarters.

Guess what, I’m still not done. I could write an entire book with this contrarian perspective, and thinking twice, I actually have written something similar already! Do you remember my graphic fiction Kafé Limbo, where I compared us, Koreans, to cockroaches – describing them as the ultimate survival experts who thrive in homogeneity. Does that analogy sound worse than Art Spigelman’s Maus? Absolutely. My only luck was that I’m not remotely as famous as him so my book slipped under the radar, but if my Weltanschauung had been revealed to the wider Korean public my destiny would have been very… predictable, to say the least.

I am witnessing a similar kind of fate of another ‘fellow’ contrarian. A Chinese novelist, Fang Fang, who lives in Wuhan, is facing strong criticism as her on-line diary during the outbreak is scheduled to be published in English. What she wrote was something like this: “So far not a single person has said sorry or taken responsibility. I’ve even seen a writer use the phrase ‘complete victory.’ What are they talking about?” What I find funny is that Fang Fang is not even expressing any radical thoughts. I’d even say they are actually very soft, normal humanist compassion. No cockroach analogy, nor naming and shaming. She wasn’t even urging the Chinese government to apologize to the international community. Just some completely sane, commonsensical observation and reflection, and yet she draws criticism, as if she’s a traitor, ‘failing to be grateful to her motherland’ and ‘helping foreign countries attack China by giving them a giant sword.’ Unbelievable. Think about what would have happened if I were living in Wuhan, and they discovered my diaries! I can easily picture the kind of criticisms I’d draw. Thank goodness nobody in Korea gives a shit about this, for better or worse.

You guys aboard, don’t have the slightest idea what the life of an “Asian contrarian” looks like, where ‘agreeability’ is such a highly regarded virtue that it is fiercely imposed upon individuals. The intensity level of the social pressure that shapes a homogenous monoculture is not easily cultivated in places where diversity is accepted as a social norm. In fact, a homogenous society would be much more controllable or governable. Perhaps one of the reasons why Europe and the US are struggling to ‘control and discipline’ their citizens and ensure they follow certain rules to prevent COVID-19 would be because of their more diverse society.

As you did, Paulo, many foreigners who live or have lived in Korea, can’t help but observe its unique homogeneity. There is always of a topic the whole society is talking, searching and concerned about. This centripetal tendency of discourse in Korea is so powerful that it absorbs and overrides all others, exactly like what the coronavirus is doing to the world now. Maybe worldwide this is something new, but in Korea this is the norm. We are so used to collectively reacting to a single issue as ‘one nation’ that we are ‘schooled and groomed’ to cooperate with the state apparatus in certain emergencies, swiftly and militantly. And sometimes this translates into happily accepting invasion of individual freedom. In this regard, I find Agamben’s take of the State of Exception almost laughable, because in a way, we are the State of Exception. These days I even have an impression that the entire world is being Koreanized.

Today, I went to the polling station. It’s election time. There were rumors that the general election would be suspended due to the pandemic, but as its spread slowed down, the government maintained the schedule, and here we are. Yet, there were some precautionary measures taken to prevent infection. The first step was temperature testing. I got slightly irritated, although this wasn’t unexpected. Rather, it has become so normalized that nobody seems to question these practices anymore. Yesterday I was appalled to read a news report that 80% of Koreans agree to the use of electronic wristbands to track potential C-virus patients who should be self-isolating. The government hasn’t roll this out yet, as Hong Kong has done, but the more frightening fact is this overwhelming consensus. So, the people want it, more than the government! Now do you have an idea of how desperate Koreans are to save their lives from the virus at all costs? Surviving is such an unquestionable priority that it flattens the plateaus of discourse so easily.

In the end, however, I said to myself; fuck it, stop overthinking. It’s just your bloody temperature nobody cares about it. To hell with biopolitics! To hell with Foucault and Agamben! But it was the very next step that really got me. What? I have to use plastic gloves to vote to prevent infection? I hesitated in disbelief. There was already a line behind me. I had to quickly do the math. The press believes the voting rate for this election will be at least 50%. Roughly speaking, that’s about 25-30 million. 30 million single-use plastic gloves thrown away for a single election! Are you kidding me? That was when I decided to quit. There was no way I am going to be a part of this crap.

I am not going to justify my absenteeism by mentioning the lack of any electable candidates or parties (which was also very true). There was no need to. Because as a matter of fact, I did vote. Turning my back from the polling station, I voted. I voted not to vote, or, I voted against this kind of voting. I voted against all that is behind this administrative detail of adopting plastic gloves in the election, which so nicely summarizes the prevailing modern Korean psyche in a nutshell; complete disregard of ecological concerns. Yes, without a doubt in my mind, I can proudly state that my constitutional right to vote is not more important than a sea turtle who might get his/her stomach stuffed with that stupid glove that resembles a jellyfish.

As I vehemently voted against plastic gloves, I realized I was, and always have been, voting against almost all that this country has done. No political party has ever represented my political will, not even remotely. I tend to disagree with more than 90% of things that this society seems to agree with. Please, somebody! Ship me to Sweden where I can be a part of the herd immunity experiment (although its chief state epidemiologist Mr. Tegnell denies the term)! Ship me to Portugal where migrants and asylum-seekers are provided full access to public services in response to the pandemic! Ship me somewhere, please!

An international treatise should be established which allows people to swap nationalities, or at least passports. I’m sure that there will be quite a few, at least at this very moment, wishing to come to Korea, if it’s indeed true that this country is so highly praised. I’d be very keen to swap with that person (Although it does depend. Neither can I endure life in a country where I have to deal with a president called Bolsonaro. I’m no fool!).

In short: I came, I saw, I abstained. I said adios to this election and went home. In the evening, I tried to search for news (with a very vague hope) that somebody had criticized the use of plastic gloves. I did find a news article that had an interview with a random citizen in her 60s. Her answer was this: “well, in the beginning, it was a little bit uncomfortable to vote with plastic gloves, but it wasn’t a big deal because we are already used to it when we make Kimchi”. You and your bloody Kimchi! Can you see this? Never, ever, an angle of concern for creating such an amount of garbage. It’s convenience, stupid!

All this took me back to 7 years ago when I was leaving Seoul to move to Porto. When a friend of mine asked why I so baldly wished to get the hell out of this country, I replied that I was seeking asylum from Loogie spitting. Yes, I make life-time decisions based on trifles. Why shouldn’t I?

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21st April

Ugly survival, or survival of the ugliest.

“When I woke up this morning from unsettling dreams, I found my room changed into a space full of monstrous vermin.”

Is this real? Probably not. It must be how I feel every morning since the outbreak. I wake up with bad news and go to bed with more.

Luis Sepúlveda died. Every time another likable person passes away, my very first kneejerk reaction is being outraged, rather than being shocked or saddened. With a strange, inexplicably calm anger directed to no one or everyone, I ask: “Why on earth him/her, and not others?” I share that common impression that it always seems to be the nicer people who perish earlier and easier, while the meanest remain ever more resilient.

It was only fitting that I received an email from a friend in the Netherlands who shared Brecht’s well known poem “I, the Survivor”:

I know of course: it’s simply luck
That I’ve survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends
say of me: “Survival of the fittest”
And I hated myself.

I didn’t hate myself, not more than I already used to; I was embarrassed. Embarrassed to have survived and even more embarrassed to see how survivors behave, especially when their comments imply some people are superior to others, having survived. I agree with Brecht. It was luck.

For some reason, there was some clickbait that came recommended in my YouTube feed. I should have resisted. Nassim Taleb, the “risk guru,” was promoting his idea that “without extreme paranoia, we can’t survive” (in the pandemics). How embarrassing.

Suddenly, I felt like visiting K-punk (the blog). It was there, without any updates since 2015. The day a likable writer died, I find myself in search of another dead one. If Mark Fisher was still alive, I’d love to read something from him during this time. I miss him. I miss the way he was depressed. As many other cases are, his depression was much more than a personal struggle. He said it was “the internalized expression of actual social forces.” I can’t agree more. In his writings, his agony living through the constructions of neoliberalism was palpable.

I read an article in Jacobin, regretting Fisher’s death and wishing he could have held on to “witness the beginning of the end of capitalist realism.” You know how foresight-less the author was, if he projected Corbyn to be the next prime minister. The more I ponder, the firmer I reach the conclusion that Fisher was right. He was right to kill himself. Us, not killing ourselves, are strange, senseless, stupefied, shameless… and wrong. We, the ugly and lucky survivors.

The election is over.

A friend texted me; “Fancy celebrating ‘the result’ with a beer?”

My reaction was: “Celebrate? Are you seriously buying the conventional narrative that this election was a ‘triumph of democracy’ and the landslide win of the ‘liberal’ democratic party was a victory for the Left? The last time I checked, there are, since early 2000, just two big conservative parties in Korea. And what did this election display if not a complete failure of last year’s election law reform? Doesn’t it painfully reveal the structural weakness of our democracy, where parties are forged around personal networks rather than any substantial political goals? Didn’t you see with your very own eyes that every party basically bought into cheap populism, miserably failing to offer any distinctive vision or policy? I can’t believe that you, being a devoted Sanders supporter, cannot see that this situation is the equivalent of Sanders losing to Hilary (and Biden). The establishment, the status quo, the so-called liberals – who adopted neoliberal capitalist politics just as masterfully as the so-called conservative shitholes, perhaps with a slightly kinder face – won. So, celebrate exactly what? That they successfully took advantage of their luck in the pandemic situation to reinforce this tribal, conservative state apparatus?”

I should have said that. Instead, I said I was sorry but I’m busy this evening.

Of course, I wasn’t. I had all the time in the world. I came back home, quickly fixed a meal and sat down for a while doing nothing. Although I had a long to-do list, I felt I had absolutely nothing to do. That’s when I remembered I didn’t write the final entry of this diary. At the same time, I felt there was nothing more I’d feel like writing about. I could write an episode about the systematic exploitation of the medical staff and low-wage health workers to complete my “Pervert’s Guide to Handle COVID-19 - Korea”, but I didn’t have the nerve. I remembered Mike had sent me some questions when I started this diary and realized I had answered most of them, except the one related to art: the coronavirus’ effects on art, impacts on anything to do with it. There must be reasons why I didn’t. It has been quite a while since I use that word, art. It triggers unpleasant trains of thought.

There’s a lot of “post-corona” talk out there. Unless you are a professional optimist, you know very well that the world will – and already is – go back to BAU (business as usual). If you don’t agree, have a look at Korea. The coronavirus made us stop, but failed to make us really think.

I am particularly fed up with repeating the same patterns: hoping for a fundamental change after a big event and witnessing BAU. “Events” that served as symbols of the “Before This/After This” juncture, and offered a silver lining of real change after its happening, such as 9/11, Occupy, the Arab Spring… all ended up the same way. Fisher wrote: “It’s somewhat ironic that theories of the Event have come to the fore in the most fashionable areas of academic political philosophy at just the moment in history when it has become clear that events in and of themselves don’t change anything.” Please don’t come up with lazy incrementalism. No doubt that many things “changed” for the worse, for example, airport security checks becoming unbelievably annoying and many times racist after 9/11.

But let me ask, is this pandemic an event that deserves the word “After”? If “After” means a new wave of nationalism, statism and populism, bailouts for large corporations, various forms of Hobbesian battle of all against all, tightened biopolitical measures, increased investment in biomedical research, normalization of hypochondriacal health screening and massive mask using, resurgence of single-use plastic, yes. But if you mean structural, fundamental and positive changes such as fairer economic systems, bipartisan and international collective efforts to address the root causes, and solidarization to tackle larger common threats like climate change, no. There will be no After.

And this notion of perpetual absence, the never-coming of the After is precisely what I feel when I think of art. I’m not necessarily referring to Adorno’s dictum about impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz. Nor Fisher’s opinion of “no new music after 2003.” Nor the discourse of the end of literature, or art after Duchamp… but maybe encompassing all the disappointments following all the “Afters.” I find art in that same league, hence Art being AAU (art as usual). Ways of its production and circulation would change, which could be interesting, but in essence the same. Some believe in Ars longa, vita brevis, but shouldn’t art be short, while human life is boringly long? I thought that art’s value lay in the fact that it doesn’t last, if we’re not talking about the taxidermies in the museums and galleries. As Blanchot replied when he was asked “Where is literature going?,” shouldn’t art go “toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”?

I’m not sure if post-COVID talk is worthwhile. What is certain is that our talk, like the endless stories in Decameron, will continue. In different forms, in different ways. We, the human race, will also continue (and I’m sure Koreans will have a family coach booked in that train) as other monstrously invincible things continue: cancer cells, viruses, plastic, capitalism or capitalist realism… Everything that doesn’t die, that doesn’t disappear, but kills and only mutates, comes across ugly to me. Precious things know how and when to die. What about me? I, the survivor. What should I do with my own life then?

I don’t remember if I was plotting to kill myself or just binge watching garbage web content, but time flew and, as if my day hadn’t had enough bad news, at about 11:30, I got a Whatsapp message from Brazil. It was Andre, one of the leaders of the Karipuna tribe in Western Amazon. I met him last year as a part of a research expedition for the organization I work for. Like many indigenous communities in the region, the Karipuna people face constant threats of invasion by land grabbers and all forms of extractive industry. They are one of the most endangered tribes, only counting 58 tribesmen and women, and Andre is their leader. Surprisingly, he’s only 27.

I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. I’d already read that a Yanomami tribe teenager died from the C-virus, and I tried to warn as many friends as possible in the rainforest region not to let anyone come inside their territory. There couldn’t be a more vulnerable place in this outbreak, since a single contracted patient can literally wipe out the entire tribe. As expected, one of the worst things was happening. Karipuna people are seeing increases of illegal deforestation activities, taking advantage of the absence of enforcement agencies.

I don’t know if I mean anything to Andre, more than just another foreigner or journalist, but he and the Karipuna people mean a lot to me. The sheer fact that some of my friends have to constantly deal with the wariness of violent invasions – any given day and time, a bunch of gunmen can enter your village and massacre every one in a few minutes – has a strong reflexive effect on me.

We exchanged a few messages and photos. Andre also shared a link to an interview with the chief of another tribe. I liked it, especially his last sentence: “Somos piores que a Covid-19” (We are worse than Covid-19). I promised I will try to do something (within my extremely limited power) and said bye.

As I sighed, it was echoed by a bitter wind whistling through the cracks of my bedroom window. So, trying to prevent the bad from getting worse, is that all we can do? Or not even that… It was already half past one. I really need to get some sleep, otherwise I’m not going to be able to pitch Andre’s story tomorrow. What about my suicide? Well, not tonight, and not as long as they need my help!

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