Turning Point: In February, Daegu, South Korea, became the site of the first major coronavirus outbreak outside China.
My father felt marooned.
He had done manual labor his whole life, working in construction. At 70, he became a security guard. Then, when he was too old to work, he passed the time at a city-run senior center. He played janggi with other men, read at the public library and took walks in a neighborhood park. But with the outbreak of Covid-19, facilities closed in unison, taking with them every avenue of socialization. My father was forced to spend the winter confined to the small room he’d been living in for 20 years in his son and daughter-in-law’s home in Seoul, reduced to few words and fewer square feet.
In February, the outbreak took an ominous turn, with clusters rapidly emerging in the city of Daegu. The outlook was grim. With the contagion spreading to closed hospital wards and nursing homes and deaths swiftly increasing, it became clear that Covid-19 was reaching its tentacles for our most vulnerable.
My father had lived through so much already. Born in 1940 at the tail end of the Japanese occupation, he was a child during the Korean War, a young man during the ruthless industrialization period that began in the ’60s and a middle-aged man during the shock waves of democratization. When he was only 10, a Communist partisan killed his father. Although he was an innocent civilian, the police mistakenly thought his father was a Communist sympathizer. Every time he told us the story, my father started by saying, “Your grandfather died unfairly.” As if knowing that was the key to understanding anything else.
Deemed guilty by association, my father was unable to pursue his own dreams. He worked on construction sites all over, but never got to travel for leisure. He didn’t drink, took nothing he didn’t earn and never gambled. And yet, life never rewarded his good behavior. Once, while working, he nearly fell off a high-rise; another time, he was deported while working abroad because he lacked the proper paperwork. He lost his wife, my mother, all too early, to illness.
A few years ago, my father was able to secure the testimony of neighbors and police officers from his childhood and fought a lengthy court battle to investigate the cause of his father’s death and have his name cleared as a patriot. It was not easy, but when he succeeded, he was overjoyed, as if finally receiving vindication for the hard life he had lived.
Yet now, with everything off limits — even Seoul National Cemetery, where my grandfather had been newly laid to rest with honor — my father had never felt so alone. Unable to resign himself to spending his golden years in quarantine, he began to yearn for his hometown, a village near the southwestern city of Gwangju. He’d always told himself he’d return one day, but now the epidemic had made up his mind for him. If he had to spend his days in solitude, why not do so among his favorite hills and streams?
Knowing that we would either object to his plans or insist on helping, he made secret trips between Seoul and Gwangju to look for a small house to rent and informed us only the day after he’d moved in. My siblings — two older sisters and an older brother — and I were indignant. How could a high-risk senior citizen living on his own possibly manage to observe social distancing?
We, who were accustomed to entertaining ourselves online and having things delivered at the touch of a button, could not understand how toxic his isolation had been to him. We did not yet know what it was like to be old. Nor how it felt to be ignored and neglected at home in the name of safety.
My siblings and I rushed to board a train to Gwangju, so as to bring our father back to Seoul and convince him of the safety of isolating with family. The train was empty. That day, Feb. 29, had seen 813 more confirmed coronavirus cases, the highest tally yet since the first had been recorded on Jan. 20. We kept our masks on for every second of that two-and-a-half-hour train ride south.
We found our father at his rented house, but he refused to leave with us. And with the house too small for all of us to sleep in, we had to stay the night at a small hotel, further defying the quarantine authorities’ recommendations of staying home and avoiding gatherings. The all-but-empty hotel felt eerie. My sisters and I went to sleep, worrying over our father’s insistence on staying where he was.
Late the next morning we went with my father to look for a place to eat. The streets of Gwangju felt abandoned. We walked a long way, unable to find any place that was open. Finally, we arrived at an outdoor market near a university hospital.
“When I was 15,” my father said, “I used to walk all the way to this market to sell watermelons.”
I knew little about his childhood. The youngest image of him I’d seen was a stern-looking photograph taken when he was around 20, just before he moved up to Seoul. How many faces does life wear? In the drawn and lonely-looking face he wore now, I could not see any trace of the tenacious boy who’d walked a dozen miles to sell melons, or of the tense young man preparing to move to a metropolis.
“It was so hot and so far.”
With those words, his different faces overlapped. He had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. This was the root and the stalk of his self-esteem.
His sister had stayed behind in their hometown to grow peaches. We had grown up eating those peaches, but it was unlikely we would get to enjoy any this year. Before the outbreak, she had injured her leg badly and was still in a convalescent hospital. As Covid-19 continued to spread, the hospitals had stopped allowing visitors. My father already seemed to be grieving that he might never see her again.
He told us what he’d heard from his sister’s son: “She thinks everyone has abandoned her.”
When I thought about all the people facing the same situation as my aunt — incapacitated and convinced that she’d been abandoned in her hospital room — an unsettling feeling came over me. This was our future. Life would make sickly old people of all of us.
We managed to find one restaurant open in the market. After breakfast, on our way to the subway, we passed the hospital. Workers in full-body protective gear were assisting people waiting to get tested at the screening center installed outside the entrance. We had seen on the morning news that someone from the area had tested positive and that they were now testing everyone who’d come in contact with that person. The sight of the screening center, and being that close to it, left us on edge. We were terrified of losing our father to the virus.
At the subway entrance, our dad stepped onto the escalator, his hand gripping the handrail firmly. On the train, he clutched a pole to keep his balance. Everything a younger person could do without touching anything was impossible. No matter how careful he tried to be, he came into contact with the breath and hands of far more people than we did and was therefore that much more exposed to infection.
This is how Covid-19 steals our elderly. You could lose your mother who has high blood pressure, your grandmother who struggles with diabetes, your sister with a chronic health condition. Our connections to these people are the reason we must protect ourselves from the virus.
The duty of disease prevention is linked to the ability to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s not meddling in other people’s personal hygiene or taking away their freedom but simply doing what it takes to not become a source of infection, a threat to the lives of the people connected to you.
My father ended up staying in Gwangju until July, when ill health forced him to return to us. Since then, he has been following the news of vaccine developments. He’s heartened by some reports, but the news that more powerful countries were competing to “sell the rice before it was even harvested” — that is, to purchase a vaccine that does not yet exist — has moved him to say, “Even if they come up with a vaccine, will people like us be able to get the shots?” His years of weathering poverty, discrimination, disappointment and frustration made him say that. In his lifetime, no matter how hard “people like us” tried, our efforts were too often met with exclusion.
I recently watched a documentary in which people in the Lombardy region of Italy held a demonstration calling for reform of the public health care system. Bereaved family members held a banner reading “La salute è un diritto” — “Health is a right” — their anger apparent in their faces.
Health is more than just a personal responsibility; it is a social good that must be guaranteed by a robust national health care system. I wish there were no further need to convince anyone that the health of each of our communities depends on the individual health of each of its members.
Hye-young Pyun is the author of the novels The Law of Lines, City of Ash and Red and The Hole. This essay was translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell.