Vietnamese in South Korea face dilemma: stay put or bail out?

By Phan Duong   February 25, 2020 | 05:00 am PT
Vietnamese in South Korea face dilemma: stay put or bail out?
An empty street near in South Korea's Daegu City, February 22, 2020. Photo by Ngo Thanh Hoai.
As the novel coronavirus outbreak sweeps through Daegu in Korea, over 8,000 Vietnamese must decide whether to leave or take a chance there.

Ngo Thanh Hoai, 28, never expected Daegu City, where she lives, to see so many cases of Covid-19 infections. On a local news channel on February 22 she saw that the numbers had almost doubled overnight from 204 to 346.

Like many others, she feared for her life.

But she has determined that even if she were infected, she would not allow it to spread within the community.

Hoai, currently enrolled at Kongju National University, is one of around 200,000 Vietnamese studying or working in South Korea, of whom around 8,285 are in Daegu.

South Korea recently made international headlines as one of the worst-hit by the coronavirus epidemic, recording 60 new cases on Tuesday alone to take the total number so far to 893, many in Daegu.

The spike in the number of new cases was linked to the so-called "Patient 31," a 61-year-old woman who attended services at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu and infected dozens of people, reports said.

Hoai lives in Namgu District, just a kilometer away from the church that Patient 31 regularly attended. The district is next to the hospital where the patient and her family are being quarantined.

"For the last three days the district has looked like a wasteland," Hoai says. Shops and restaurants have closed down, everyone is confining themselves at home and no one dares go out without a mask. Mask prices have skyrocketed.

Almost nobody can be found using public transport, but police and medical workers are patrolling and disinfecting every street corner. Schools delay their spring terms and companies have let their employees work from home.

After news broke out about the existence of Patient 31, all hell broke loose with people scrambling to get their hands on any food items they could find, leaving behind only empty shelves and paralyzed online shopping services.

Hoai, who decided to stay back in Daegu, opted for a small convenience store to look for food and bought several times her usual quota, enough to feed her family for three weeks.

Her husband, who works in another city about 1.5 hours away by car, has not been able to return home during the first few days of Daegu’s outbreak. He did not want to risk going back to be infected and then infect his colleagues. He asked Hoai and her mother to come to his place instead, but Hoai was afraid they might carry the infection.

Bailing out

In the last seven years he has been living in South Korea, Vu Vinh, a Vietnamese student at Yeungnam University in Gyeongsan City, about 14 km from Daegu, has never seen a subway train not packed with people. But subway Line 2 from Gyeongsan to Daegu was almost empty after working hours on February 23, he said.

"It’s the only line connecting the two cities. It’s unbelievable it would be so empty at rush hour."

An empty subway train from South Koreas Gyeongsan City to Daegu City on February 22, 2020. Photo by Vu Vinh.

An empty subway train from South Korea's Gyeongsan City to Daegu City on February 22, 2020. Photo by Vu Vinh.

Most of his other Vietnamese friends are in Daegu. Some have stayed back while others bailed out.

"Four of my friends have already returned to Vietnam," he said.

Vu Hien, 27, said she would rather be quarantined for 14 days than stay back in Daegu. She had planned to return to Vietnam on March 10, but decided to change her ticket to February 25.

"My mom told me to get myself quarantined right after I land at the airport," Hien, who recently graduated from Daegu University, said.

Like many of Vinh’s friends, 20 of Hien’s have also returned to Vietnam since February 20 as the number of Covid-19 cases rose day after day. Some were even willing to postpone their study plans in case the epidemic got out of control in South Korea.

Hien has barricaded herself in her room, waiting for the day she could catch the plane home. When she needs to go out, she makes sure she wears two masks, carries her own hand sanitizer and disinfects herself almost religiously.

"I don’t use my phone outside any more, and look left and right to maintain a healthy distance from other people," she said.

As of Monday many South Korean airlines had suspended flights to Daegu, the country’s fourth largest city and the one with the largest number of Covid-19 cases.

The country has also raised its infectious disease alert to the highest level.

"If we cannot block the spread in the Daegu region in an effective way, there are high possibilities it would lead to a nationwide transmission," Reuters quoted Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip as saying.

As for Hoai, she cannot do anything but wait for the storm to pass. Waking up in the middle of the night on February 23 after her son’s late night supper, she checked her phone to see the number of deaths and diagnosed cases in the country. She has printed her son’s daily schedule for her family just in case she becomes infected herself.

Once she had packed her family’s luggage, all she could think of was going back to Vietnam.

The bags are now sitting under her makeup table, ready to be picked up any moment.

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