Traveling during covid is unwise but with covid quickly becoming our new reality, how do we balance living life, mental health, and protecting others in our daily lives?
Do we sit at home and wait it out while our mental health and emotional growth deteriorate, waiting for covid to go away? Do we do whatever we want without a care for the consequence? How do we find a balance between the first two to live an ethical life while not allowing our mental health to deteriorate along with everything that we love about life?
There is no answer to these questions. We consistently live on a fine line between taking calculated risks and dumb risks. We will never land on the “right” side by most people’s standards. We have to make decisions that are best for ourselves while still considering the health and safety of those around us.
I want to share the thought process that helped me plan this vacation in hopes that we think criticaly about if we should travel. I also hope that we can all be kinder to ourselves and eachother when we seek to decompress while covid rages around us.
The Five Questions
1. When is my next chance to take time off? If I skip my vacation were will I be mentally?
A week and a half before my vacation, my plans fell apart. Numbers were up, friends’ schedules were not aligning, and some of their workplaces told them they couldn’t leave the province. I was devastated. I decided on canceling my vacation or staying at home in my studio apartment if that wasn’t an option.
My mood was terrible. The burnout from my move across the country than across the world hit me like a ton of bricks. I honestly felt like I was moving through quicksand for a couple of days, especially when I realized my next vacation was over 6 months away. I was worried about what my mental health would look like over the next six months without this vacation.
Luckily one of my friends started to share her feelings about her vacation plans since they were falling apart like mine did. After talking to her, it really hit me that if I didn’t take time off now, the next six months would be especially rough for my mental health. I needed time away from everything ignorer to reset and deal with the second half of this year.
2. What are the COVID cases looking like?
The answer to this one is not good. Korea was and is breaking daily case records for Covid, and most areas are at a level 3 of social distancing out of 4. with 5 being a complete shutdown.
However, Bad numbers for Korea were comparatively not as bad as many states back home, including the state I lived in during the pandemic. I also compared the caseload in my province to that of Jeju, my intended vacation spot. They both stayed around the same caseload per day between 10-25 cases and had way under 1,000 total active cases.
The final thing that I looked at with case numbers that informed my decision to travel is contact tracing. At this time, the contact tracing shows that most infections come from schools, family gatherings, gyms, and places of work. Not beaches, restaurants, or hotels. For those who may be skeptical of that, let me tell you how intense contact tracing in Korea is. Whenever I walk into a restaurant or a busy store or park, I have to check in and do a temperature check. So if I came in contact with someone who testified positive, I most likely would know within a day or two of contact.
Yes, cases are high. Should I have still stayed home? Probably but I felt that the risk of me getting infected in Jeju would be the same as me staying home in Jeollanamdo.
3. What will I be doing on vacation, and what are the risks involved?
With numbers being high, I decided to forgo museums and many tourist attractions that may be overcrowded. I chose to spend my days walking around the coastline and doing outdoor activities. This left me with my highest risk of catching covid from a restaurant or my scuba instructor if she had it. (as soon as I decided Jeju was a possibility, I contacted several companies about fulfilling this dream)
4. Am I vaccinated? Do the people in the region or country I’m visiting have access to vaccines?
No and Kinda.
Yep…. This is a hard one. I did receive my first jab 3 days before leaving, but I wasn’t vaccinated. Vaccine role out for places outside the United States is painstakingly slow due to supply chain issues and politics (i.e., many countries don’t trust AZ because it’s a Russian company, and the vaccine is linked to blood clots). Although I was getting my first job, I would be unable to take a vacation after my second one, even if that happens on time. At the time, II went to Jeju people 56 years of age and older; military personnel and teachers are the only ones who have access to the vaccine, with teachers only be able to get them for less than a week.
I would not have gone if I hadn’t already been living in Korea. My access, although privileged because of my job, was the same as Koreans.
Why does this matter?
Many countries do not have equal access to vaccines. Their population still can’t see the light at the end of the initial preverbal tunnel (the Delta variant proves that this is a long ride with lots of darkness). Even though you are vaccinated, traveling to an area that has no too little vaccine access is not only flaunting your privilege but dangerous to you and the people around you (you know the Delta variant and breakthrough cases are a thing). To be honest, you are unwelcome there. You can read more about my experiences with xenophobia abroad here but don’t think that my experience or Korea are the outliers. Many countries around the world are angry about their access to the vaccine. They also feel that foreigners are blamed for the rising numbers in their country despite statistics saying otherwise. Just because you’re vaccinated, you do not have the right to travel. Nor sould you without considering the consequences.
5. If COVID cases got worse or I felt uncomfortable would I leave mid-vacation?
The answer to this one is always yes for me. I walk out of restaurants that are too busy or choose to carry out instead. I do the same for beaches and stores (except for groceries). I try and be aware of my surroundings and do a comfort level check with myself to make sure that I’m constantly mindful of the health and safety of those around me and myself. This means if things got worse, I would leave in a heartbeat.
Taking all this into consideration, I decided that my mental health took priority. I’m not asking anyone to agree with my decision. I’m asking that we all think critically about whether or not traveling is a bright idea. I’m asking us to be kinder to ourselves and others when it comes to traveling and doing things that are risker than staying home because covid is our new reality, and we all have to find a way to survive it on more than one level.
In the end, I feel like these questions helped me make the right decision. I’m glad I went.
These past couple of months have been challenging. Seeing constant posts on social media about friends and acquaintances getting vaccinated then being bombard with posts that equate being unvaccinated to being a bad person. Although I can’t entirely disagree with the latter, it has been hard to hear those words because being vaccinated is a privilege for people in the west that is currently unavailable for most of the world.
Between blood cot concerns with Asta-Zeneca, buying way more than meets the demand in places like the United States, and issues with contaminated vaccines, many countries are being left behind in the race to get vaccinated.
To be more specific about my experience with getting vaccinated, let me start with the attitudes and struggles that South Korea has had with vaccines. It may surprise many people to hear that the US isn’t the only country with a population of highly skeptical people of the vaccine. When I moved here six months ago, I listened to many Koreans saying that they don’t trust the vaccine and they don’t trust the government. I heard many people say, “I’ll wait a year and see what happens,” which eventually turned to “I’ll get anything but Astra-Zeneca (AZ).” Who can really blame them for not immediately trusting a new Vaccine with possibly life-threatening complications? Yes, the risk is low, but to add to Koreans’ trepidations about AZ, AZ is a Russian company. Russia’s backing of North Korea during the Korean war still weighs on the minds of South Koreans today. Luckily as this pandemic has dragged on (longer here than in the US by 3 months), the attitude has switched from I want the vaccine anything but AZ to I don’t care, I just want to get my life back. Unfortunately, the Korean government is struggling to obtain the vaccine. So much so that after listing to people’s fears and restricting AZ for people 50+, they will allow people to volunteer to get it. Although pulling AZ vaccines out of their demand has hurt the vaccination rate, Moderna has had issues in its supply chain. Including contaminated vaccines, which have led to recalls in Japan as I’m writing this.
So when I tell you I am damned lucky and privileged to have this vaccine, I want You to feel it and understand that these difficulties don’t just belong to Korea.
After months Of setbacks and frustration, I received an email that it was time to sign up to get Vaccinated. Being a teacher in Korea allowed me to jump the age line and get vaccinated with the 65-40 age group. A privilege that I’m incredibly grateful for. I was so excited about the opportunity to get vaccinated; on top of knowing that it was a limited supply first come, first serve deal, I stayed up till midnight just to sign up.
Vaccine registration was a nightmare. Navigating a website in another language, even for Koreans, was more challenging to get onto than the affordable care act in the United States when that was released. Between crashes and not knowing if they needed my name in Hangul or English, I gave up around 2 am.
If you don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram, this was my evening in photos:
After trying again in the morning and failing, a friend messaged me that a friend of theirs was successful, and if I sent her my info, she would get them to sign me up. After delirious mistyping several things, I was successfully signed up!!! Bless. The first of August was the date for me to go get it!
After weeks of patiently waiting, I walked across the main road to the local health clinic to be told it was the small clinic up the street… I thought, Oh boy… I initially passed this clinic because it was dingy on the outside with windows that had a yellow grey tint to them. I knew then I was going to be in for an experience.
I walk into this little clinic that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the sixties or early seventies with dingy wood paneling floors that won’t come clean. I squeezed around the two rows of seating and made my way to the front counter, where one of two nurses was checking in people. I filled out the application using Papago (a translation app) and sat down.
Looking around me, I was overwhelmed by the look and feel of the clinic. There were three rooms; one was a curtain-offed portion of the reception area behind the desk. Another had 4 wood pallets with pealing dirty vinyl stapled to the top with a few coverless dirty pillows scattered around. That room from that I could tell is where you laid down if the doctor needed you to, along with whoever else was there; the third and final room held the doctor with an eye exam-style hair and no sink. The latter, I would assume, was in the single bathroom in the clinic.
The doctor was really nice and spoke complex but broken English. He began in Korean, and I hit him with, “I don’t speak Korean. English” 저는 한국어를 못해요. His eyes went big, and he said, ok.
Doctor: first shot
Doctor: ok, looks at my sheet types something. Ok pain
Doctor: Pat’s legs and arms. Pain
Me: Ahhh, in limbs. Pain in limbs
Doctor: yes, come back. Pain in chest, Breath trouble, Come back.
Me: Ok. I carry an Epi-Pen
Doctor: you know, use
Doctor: Feel bad. Use and come back.
Me Ok, ok.
Doctor: Symptoms in 3 days or get worse come back.
Doctor: Ok. Gestures to the door
The nurse has me sit on a pallet in the curtained room behind the desk. I look over, and I see an old wood medicine cabinet (has the same feel as my grandparents had but is more bookshelf sized). It had clear bottles separated on two shelves with tape identifying what was in each vial. There were plastic bins with gloves, needles, gaze, and all the other nursing supplies needed. This all left little counter space for the nurse to work on.
The shot was already drawn up, and without needing to change gloves from the previous patient, I lifted up my sleeve for the vaccine. When the shot was done, the nurse handed me a sheet of paper about the vaccine before assuring me 3 steps to take a seat in the waiting area. After waiting less than 10 minutes, I was told to leave; they were too busy to have me wait for the full 15.
I want to be clear that the staff was all really nice and professional. I am also sure the doctor and nurses know what they are doing and have had proper training. However, I would be lying by saying the thought of the vaccine being compromised by the clinic’s conditions hadn’t crossed my mind.
I walked my way back to school for all of 10 long minutes (if that) and fought not to fall asleep at my desk over the next two days as fatigue hit me hard from the vaccine.
You would think that the rest of my vaccine experience would go smoothly at this point in the process. To be fair, it relatively did. However, with South Korea struggling to get ahold of the vaccine and Moderna having manufacturing issues, I received a text message a week before my second vaccine pushing it back an additional 2 weeks.
Luckily to have at least one shot, I waited patiently for five weeks for my second one. This time I wanted to give the clinic the benefit of the doubt when it came to cleanliness. I was overwhelmed with nerves when I first went, so I was hoping it wouldn’t feel so cringy this time.
Well, I was wrong. My first impression was very accurate. It didn’t help as I was waiting to see the doctor; all 20 seats got taken up with patients squishing us all uncomfortably close in the middle of a pandemic. Four of these patients were old ladies and men who got seated off to the side. I didn’t think anything of this because not many people would expect what would happen next. Both nurses come out of the curtained room with shots and supplies. They start prepping each of the patients for a shot f something (I assume a weekly or monthly vitamin shot as they all knew each other). Right in the middle of the waiting room, the nurses gave them their shots throwing extra supplies down in a chore, moving as fast as they could because the number of people coming through this clinic was insane for one doctor and two nurses (1 per min)
My second shot went off without a hitch except for the side effects that woke me up at 3 am the following day. Although my side effects were not bad, it was tricky navigating getting food I could stomach, which didn’t happen until my fever went down late the next day. The trouble with living in an area without a community of ex-pats that’s a little rural is the only delivery services are chicken and pizza. Neither can I eat. Also, I have to do a temp check at every store I go into, which means I had to wait for my temperature to go down before getting food. Don’t worry, I eventually got a smoothie and Bingsu 빙수 (Korean shaved ice, fruit, and condensed milk goodness) for dinner.
I feel so lucky and privileged to be finally vaccinated!
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