People line up to buy face masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus outside Nonghyup Hanaro Mart in Seoul, South…
People line up to buy face masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus outside Nonghyup Hanaro Mart in Seoul, South Korea, March 5, 2020.

SEOUL - As advertising campaigns for major world cities go, “Let’s Take a Break From Social Life” is not exactly inspiring.  

The slogan, though, rolled out by Seoul authorities this week, accurately describes life for many South Koreans these days, as they limit face-to-face interaction to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.  

Although the outbreak has mainly been contained to the area near the southeastern city of Daegu, authorities across the country aren’t taking any chances. They have suggested “social-distancing” measures to help keep people away from each other.

A thermal camera monitor shows the body temperature of people at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 2, 2020.

Nearly every main venue for social life in South Korea has been affected. Schools and universities are closed. Many companies have their employees work from home. Churches hold services via YouTube. South Korea’s football league has postponed the start of the season indefinitely.

In Seoul, home to half the country’s population, life goes on as usual — only much more quietly. With many people staying home, Seoul’s infamously congested streets now flow much faster. Though people still use public transportation, many buses and trains are less crowded. Noisy protests, a mainstay in the South Korean capital, are virtually non-existent.

Meanwhile, although Seoul residents sometimes form long lines in the early morning outside department stores to the purchase face masks that are in short supply, stores remain otherwise fully stocked — even if they are not full of people. Popular food delivery services are now used even more widely.

Isolated, anxious

As the outbreak grinds on, though, many South Koreans are not only trying to prevent the disease, but also fight off boredom.

People wearing masks stand in a line to buy face masks in front of a drug store amid the rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Daegu, South Korea, March 3, 2020.

“There is no more social life,” laments Rosa Lee, who lives on the southern outskirts of Seoul. “I'm working at home right now...not meeting anybody,” says Lee, who works in pharmaceutical regulation. “No cafes, no restaurants, no church.”

Park Sun-kyung was forced to work from home after someone in her office building in central Seoul contracted the virus. “It’s not very convenient — I need to be online all day,” she said. “I’m an outgoing person," she added, "It is really frustrating to stay home and not meet with people.”

Social distancing

The marketing campaign urges residents to participate in a two-week social distancing effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Hold on! Let’s Take a Break From Social Life,” appears on a sign greeting Seoul commuters at bus stops, in newspaper ads, and on social media.

Recommended steps include: 

“Refrain from going outdoors and avoid physical contact with others.”

“Keep in touch with people by using social media measures instead of meeting them personally.”

"Keep your personal hygiene by washing your hands and wearing a mask at all times.”

The policies are not mandatory. Unlike China, which forcibly locked down tens of millions of residents as it attempted to contain the virus, South Korea, in almost every case, is merely recommending its social distancing policies.

Mental health impact

Nevertheless, the social isolation could still take an emotional or physical toll, public health experts warn. 

Medical staff members in protective gears arrive for a duty shift at Dongsan Hospital in Daegu, South Korea, March 3, 2020.

"You don’t have to witness atrocities during wartime” to suffer mental health consequences, said Jung Doo-young with the UNIST Healthcare Center in Ulsan, a coastal city about 300 kilometers from here, “especially if people are not as active while staying inside, the body’s natural rhythms could become disrupted.”

The impact could be worse for people with existing mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, said Kim Yoon-seok of Seoul’s Margeun psychiatry clinic.

“People may become more anxious, especially in isolated situations when they are consuming excess amounts of exaggerated information or fake news,” Kim added.  

To deal with some of those problems, Seoul has set up a COVID-19 support group, which offers counseling and information on dealing with coronavirus-related stress.

So far, the social distancing, combined with an intense coronavirus testing campaign, seems to have helped limit the outbreak. Nearly all of the confirmed cases have been limited to the southeastern part of the country.

Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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