SEOUL–In high-tech South Korean society millions of mobile phones are beeping at once with the disturbing words “Emergency Alert.”
In the midst of a medical crisis that refuses to go away, the messages are more than urgent warnings to wash hands and avoid crowds. They offer details tailored to the city, the ward, the place where the latest patient is known to have been. This as as the number of those suffering from COVID-19 soared to nearly 4,000 and the 20th death was reported Sunday.
One example: In Dongdaemun, an historic part of Seoul normally seething with shoppers and diners we suddenly learn one person with the virus “visited the Jung-yuk Restaurant between 7 and 9 p.m. on 29 February. We sanitized the place at 3:50 p.m., 1 March, and closed the restaurant.”
Anyone with a mobile phone is getting dozens of alerts like that, even as a deathly calm has settled over cities and towns.
March 1 is a big day in South Korea. This was the 101st anniversary of a revolt against Japanese rule in 1919, and crowds normally fill the broad streets and parks to mark the occasion, but the only sign of the observance this year was a televised appearance by President Moon Jae-in, who spent much of his time parrying criticism of the way he’s handled the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“All the people will come together and overcome even today’s crisis,” Moon said at a ceremony in a girl’s high school, but the words were hardly reassuring as the alerts poured in.
“Moon is too kind to China,” said Choi Tae-hyun, an opposition politico. “He should have stopped the Chinese from coming here.” Then Choi clicked on his mobile as more messages flashed on the screen:
In Incheon, the port city west of Seoul where Choi has been campaigning for a seat in the National Assembly, the local government confirmed another patient. “Do not go to public events,” the message implored. “Please wear face masks.”
Another message, from central Seoul, offered still more detail. “We have confirmed a patient from another ward went to Jigae Restaurant,” it said. “This person visited between 9:30 and 11:00 pm. We sanitized the area, and the restaurant closed.” The message concluded, “If you visited this restaurant, please contact the ward office.”
Although most of the cases reported so far have been in the city of Daegu and the nearby town of Cheongdo, where the first deaths were reported in a local hospital, the fear is the disease can spread around the country as it did in China after the first outbreak in the industrial city of Wuhan.
As reports pop up on mobile screens, the sense is the virus might strike anywhere, indiscriminately, in defiance of efforts to contain it.
In Seongbuk ward, where billionaires and millionaires live in splendid isolation on a twisting road in the hills of northern Seoul, “One case is confirmed,” said an alert. The bulletin did not say where but urged, “If you have any fever or respiratory illness, contact our office.”
On the southern fringe of the capital, in a town named Kwacheon, shared by several government ministries and a prison, “a woman in her 50s is confined as a patient,” said an alert. “She is a worker in the ward office.” For those wanting to know where she had been, the message advised, “her whereabouts can be traced on our home page.”
The technical efficiency and cold crispness of the messages fueled rising resentment of Moon and the people around him.
“Merchants are angry,” said Shim Jae-hoon, a writer who grew up in Daegu but has lived in Seoul for years. “They are attacking the government for misleading them into believing this virus would be over in a few days.”
In his call for unity Moon did not mention China, but his eagerness to get along with South Korea’s biggest trading partner keeps coming up, and is turning into a political liability.
“He should have closed the border against China,” said Shim. “Instead he opened the door.”
It was from China that members of the Shincheonji cult, which claims 210,000 adherents around the country, are assumed to have caught the bug while visiting fellow church members in Wuhan.
Now, as once huge numbers of Chinese tourists are gone, about 10,000 young Chinese are due to return to university campuses here after their spring break. The students may stay away while the government here, as in China and Japan, suspends classes, but some conservatives are calling for keeping them out much longer.
In Daegu, Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was prime minister and acting president before Moon’s victory in the snap election three years ago, promised during a tour of the ancient central market to set matters straight.
“I will do my best to get things done as soon as possible,” Hwang, wearing a black face-mask, told a scrum of journalists pursuing him past thousands of shuttered shops and dining places.
The inference was clear—Moon and his government have failed. And every alert on the phone just drives that point home.