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What I learned about contact tracing when the tracers came for me

Medical workers prepare on Aug. 19 to test police officers who were mobilized to keep order at a rally in Seoul the previous weekend. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

SEOUL — The polite man on the phone introduced himself as a public servant named Jinho, and he wanted to know: Was I at the protest at Gwanghwamun on Aug. 15?

Usually I’d be interested to observe a protest, even if not for work. But that Saturday, my focus had been on getting my life set up after moving to Seoul for my next reporting assignment.

No, I said. I was not at the protest.

Jinho checked his records. My cellphone number was on the list of people at the protest, he told me. My options: Take a free coronavirus test within 24 hours or — he paused — bear responsibility for treatment costs of anyone I infected.

I told him I’d take the test.

The call felt surprisingly intrusive. I knew how contact tracing worked and that it was one of the few effective tools against the novel coronavirus. Still, it’s one thing to know you are subject to contact tracing and another to receive a phone call saying your life on Day A and Time B is now a matter of public interest.

When Jinho called, I didn’t remember what I was doing nine days earlier on Aug. 15, but I was sure it wasn’t protesting South Korea’s government. Later, retracing my steps, I discovered my activities that day weren’t exactly intrepid either. How much was I obliged to disclose in the name of public health, if the tracers phoned back? I couldn’t help but rehearse that conversation, even if only in my mind.

To contain the spread of coronavirus, contact tracing is key. But doing it effectively will take an army of people that need to be hired and trained. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

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***

No, as I said, Jinho, I was not protesting. I was watching a movie in my office that Saturday morning because my apartment did not yet have Internet. “Frailty,” you know, the one where Matthew McConaughey is either a divine vigilante or a deranged murderer.

Good guess, it was a date. They call them “watch parties,” but they aren’t really parties. There is no risk of transmission. It just means two people each watch a movie alone, at the same time, but only one of them can control the playback.

Yes, long-distance relationship. Thank you for your sympathy. Thank you.

No, I do not recall having human contact on the morning of August 15 as the office was empty.

***

Seoul’s churches, nightlife shut after covid cluster among anti-government congregation

How galling to have a shard of your life plucked out for official inspection, when you haven’t put your best foot forward, only your regular foot.

The next morning, I walked to the clinic, figuring the 30-minute stroll would feel shorter than the 10 minutes of silence that would result if I got into a cab and told the driver to take me to the Jongno-gu Coronavirus Test Site.

There was a line, but the swab itself took 10 seconds. From inside a glass-walled compartment, a medical worker reached through with long rubber gloves and pushed a cotton-tipped stick up my nose until it came out in my throat. While I’d known my nose and throat were connected, it’s a remarkable feeling to have it confirmed.

On the way back, I passed office workers clustered on the sidewalk for smoke breaks under “No Smoking” signs. This small, endearing act of rebellion reminded me of life in Beijing, where retirees gathered each day to swim and fish in the Liangmahe canal, under the “No Swimming” and “No Fishing” signs. The canal was drained in 2018 for repairs. I heard it recently reopened, and I wondered if people still swam and fished in it.

Cellphone apps designed to track covid-19 spread struggle amid privacy concerns

***

I somehow forgot this when you asked last time, Jinho, but I guess I was in contact with another human on the morning of August 15. Namely, the clerk at 7-Eleven. He sold me a hot dog for Rico. Rico is a cat. Yes, I know hot dogs are not proper food for cats. I did not know where to buy cat food on August 15, but now I do. I am new to this country. Thank you.

***

Back in the apartment, watching Rico eat cat food, I felt a new sympathy for those caught by tracers at truly private moments.

Out of self-quarantine muscle memory, while waiting for my test result, I returned to eating pre-packaged meals. They tasted of isolation.

What I craved was malatang, a Chinese snack of vegetables and sausage blanched in boiling broth. No one makes it at home, though it would be simple enough, because what makes it taste right is the flavor of dozens of other meals, dipped one after the other all day in the same bubbling pot.

I decided to go out for malatang as soon as my test was cleared.

To pass the hours, I practiced guitar chords, picking a song easy enough for beginner’s fingers — “Exile,” released by Taylor Swift during the pandemic.

I think I’ve seen this film before / and I didn’t like the ending / You’re not my homeland anymore / so what am I defending now?

After several times through, I discovered that despite the melancholy lyrics, the musical architecture was hopeful: The sour A minor resolved to a durable G, before skipping home to F, a difficult but sweet chord.

And then, I remembered something else.

A ‘travel log’ of the times in South Korea: Mapping the movements of coronavirus carriers

***

I’m sorry, Jinho, I’ve just remembered. On my way home on August 15, I saw streams of people making their way toward Gwanghwamun. I wondered what kind of protest would make so many brave the rain. I wanted to follow them.

But then Rico, frightened by the commotion, pooped in my tote. And so I didn’t go to the protest, because I was carrying a bag of warm poop. 

Politically speaking, I wasn’t at the protest. But from an epidemiological perspective maybe I was? Is the former actually any business of the government, or only the latter?

***

Months earlier, my colleague Min Joo Kim interviewed Seoul’s coronavirus response chief, Na Baeg-ju, who defended the necessity of tracking residents’ mobile phone locations. “Patients often share inaccurate information with contact-tracing officers, either because they don’t want to share sensitive details or simply because of bad memories,” he said.

I felt I now understood what he meant.

At 10:05 a.m., the day after I took the test, the text message arrived. “This is the Jongno-gu Health Center. The 8/25 covid-19 test result is ‘negative.’ ”

Cleared for reentry into society, I headed to the nearest malatang shop, where the sliced lotus roots crunched, the steamed rice was all-you-can-eat and the Chinese kitchen staff bantered in familiar accents. I ordered an extra spicy portion and marveled, not for the first time, at this dish that makes the throat tighten, the nose run and the eyes water, in a simulacrum of illness, or grief, or joy.

A ‘travel log’ of the times in South Korea: Mapping the movements of coronavirus carriers

Cellphone apps designed to track covid-19 spread struggle worldwide amid privacy concerns

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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