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OPINION

To preserve progress combating coronavirus in S. Korea, defeat complacency

By CHARLENE GUZMAN | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: March 19, 2020

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As the sun rises on another uncertain day over the Korean Peninsula, leaders must awake to an increasingly problematic question: How can we protect ourselves from an enemy we cannot see? I can only imagine the enormity of the task they face every day, as they make decisions to combat this invisible force. I join others in commending their efforts thus far. Now it seems as if the coronavirus has finally roused the American government from its slumber, and its leaders too are looking at South Korea with eyes wide, watching and waiting to see if the changes implemented throughout U.S. Forces Korea and beyond can mount a strong defense against this unseen foe. They look expectantly to us for best practices and policies in the hopes that they can replicate these guidelines in their own communities. Are we up to the task?

I’ve heard many leaders, both in Daegu and Camp Humphreys, frequently speak about “protecting the bubble.” The screenings conducted at the gates have given us a false sense of control over the spread of the virus. Questions regarding a person’s whereabouts and temperature checks at the gates could never adequately determine an individual’s exposure since, according to the World Health Organization, a person can be asymptomatic and still have and spread the virus. We have seen the weakness of this bubble with positive COVID cases identified in both locations.

Even under the best of circumstances, the analogy of the bubble is both misleading and dangerous. Misleading in that our gate procedures are not foolproof and dangerous in that it breeds complacency. Unchecked complacency is now our greatest threat. It is evident in the reestablishment of the SKIES programs, in the growing participation in religious services, and in the possible reopening of the Department of Defense Education Activity school system, just to name a few. The pandemic has gripped the entire world, but USFK seems too anxious to return to life as usual.

In a recent BBC report, Dr. Keri Althoff, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said “although children usually display mild or no symptoms of coronavirus, they can spread the virus to others.” The WHO continues to recommend social distancing, in which “both adults and children stay six feet apart at all times,” as one tactic against the spread of this virus. Reopening schools would eradicate that possibility. How will social distancing be achieved on a packed school bus, in a crowded classroom, or on line during lunch in the cafeteria? Are we seriously asking our children, whether they are 5 or 15 years old, to self-regulate and maintain the proper social distance from their friends? Is it reasonable to lay that responsibility on their shoulders?

I don’t dare to assume that USFK leadership has not considered the risks posed by reopening schools. And I’m sure officials have had an onslaught of cries from parents who feel ill-equipped and unprepared for this current situation. Unless you are an experienced homeschooler, managing your child’s education at home might seem like a daunting task. But I would also argue, for parents who feel overwhelmed with their children at home, what is it worth to you to keep your family safe?

The enemy is still at our gate, waiting for the moment when we surrender to our frustrations and anxieties. Posting soldiers on school buses and at school entrances to take temperatures will not adequately screen for children who might be carrying the virus, but not displaying symptoms. I urge USFK leadership to hold steady to the precautions they have taken, as tedious and disruptive as they may be to daily life.

I ask them to consider other measures to keep our communities safe. For example, if schools do reopen, will virtual classrooms remain active for those families who do not feel comfortable sending their children to school? Even though the rate of positive cases on the peninsula has begun to slow, we must remember the virus can rebound once we have dropped our defenses.

This is a pivotal moment, and yes, the world is watching to see what we will do next. We hope, in the end, we can look back and say we were overly cautious, and the disease did not progress any further.

However, this is not the time for retreat. The fight is still real. And if we are to win the battle against this virus, complacency must not have its way.

Charlene Guzman is a freelance writer and eight-year Army Public Affairs veteran who is pursuing a Master in Fine Arts in creative writing with Harvard Extension School. She and her active-duty husband are stationed at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys with their five children.

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