How Dying from Air Pollution Protected Korea from Covid-19


America you are so late to the party if you’re only hearing about KF-94 masks after 420,000 coronavirus deaths. We watch in horror when you are blithely unaware that priority should be on mask filtration — not on fashion print masks that may be too porous to function. And that’s if you even wear masks at all. Instead of a whole year debating whether masks work, you should’ve done what you do best – comparison shop for the best mask for the masses.

After settling upon the evidence that the current coronavirus pandemic is primarily airborne and not from surfaces (which you were also so late to understand), you should’ve dedicated your focus on nationwide distribution of higher quality and higher comfort masks.

KF-94 Mask Manufactured in South Korea

From the beginning, Koreans had exactly that at their disposal — the lauded KF94 mask. It has 94 percent filtration of microparticles and a 3D design that makes it comfortable and resistant to fogging up lenses if you wear glasses or sunglasses.

However, it’s not due to incredible warp speed mask development and production that gave us this lucky break in South Korea. The silver lining for all those years being choked by microfine dust (created by South Korea, North Korea, China and mother nature’s wind patterns) left us with an active infrastructure and culture of wearing masks to protect us from lung damage.

Fine Dust Air Pollution in Korea

It was also coincidence that the coronavirus particles were similar in size to the microfine dust particles we were already filtering with our ‘yellow dust’ or ‘microfine dust’ masks. All we needed to do was massively crank up the production, relabel them anti-coronavirus masks and figure out a nationwide rationing system. In the spring of 2020, KF94 masks were banned from export and a government distribution program for subsidized masks was implemented via the nation’s network of neighborhood pharmacies. Enough citizens had steady access to the best quality masks and actually wore them. Bravo.

Why Koreans Readily Adopted Masks from the Outset

Instead of feeling restricted by masks, Koreans feel protected by masks on two major practical fronts: 1) After being habitually lied to by their own government when it comes to public safety, wearing a mask is an expression of individual empowerment. It’s a freedom of choice to take care of oneself and offer a bit of insurance against a government that has left people out to die with little remorse (refer to Sewol Ferry Disaster).

People immediately wore masks even before the government declared Covid-19 to be an airborne nightmare. Better safe than sorry because Koreans have had a long history of being told to protect themselves too late.

2) Hiding one’s face under a mask brings a blanket of protection for Koreans who are targeted by those who want to weaponize their images against them. Call it a legacy from abusive masters and dictators who would wield punishments on a whim. Many still believe it to be an asset to fly under the radar whenever possible.

Political Goldmine for Prompt Coronavirus Response

South Korean President Moon Jae-in

Observers note that Korea’s bungled handing of the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus exposed the gaps in the government’s response mechanisms that led to a smoother Covid-19 campaign in 2020. However, there has been another incentive for President Moon Jae-in’s administration to be super agile with protecting the country from the coronavirus. Every time the nation succeeds under President Moon and his party, it underscores the failures of the previous President Park administration and her rival party’s mess with public safety.

These political points can be leveraged into election wins, which was immediately proven in the president’s favor during the April 2020 legislative elections. Moon’s party won in a landslide while the opposing conservative bloc showed their worst result since 1960. The government demonstrated what other nations and Korea’s own previous government could not do: handle the pandemic with quarantine, contact tracing and public health while not completely shutting down the economy.

With lessons learned from the MERS outbreak, taking care of the public during the frequent hazardous days of air pollution became a well-rehearsed protocol. Constant air quality updates to citizens via mobile and traditional media became common before the coronavirus hit in 2020. The groundwork had already been set for public health to be a top political priority.

Series of emergency text messages alerting Koreans of nearby confirmed cases and times. Shoppers who went to a particular supermarket from 4:10pm to 4:20pm on 12/20 may have been exposed to a coronavirus patient. Diners of a particular restaurant from 12/16 to 12/21 are instructed to get tested. Also, visitors to a local government office from 12/18 to 12/23 are also advised to take a coronavirus test.

Centralized Communication System

South Korea’s previous presidential administration under Park Geun-hye endured heavy backlash during the 2015 MERS outbreak for restricting information of potential virus exposure from the public. At first, it wouldn’t even release the names of the hospitals where patients were undergoing MERS quarantine for fear of harming the business of medical facilities.

The current Moon Jae-in administration has swung in the opposite direction of total transparency where there was almost too much information released to the public including age and gender. You could follow the breadcrumbs of clues to identify individuals who had caught the virus. Now, the alerts are primarily location based on the districts your phone has traveled. If a confirmed patient visited a coffee shop, the time and location would be sent out so that you could check if you were also in the cafe at the same time. These alerts give a constant stream of location and times where infected people have been. It can reassure you on the one hand, let you know whether you need to be tested right away, and on the other hand, it reinforces the need to be cautious.

Final Note

Even though South Korea seems to have had a coronavirus response that almost makes it look like it was waiting to show the world how well it could handle crisis, the low coronavirus infection and fatality levels couldn’t have happened without high adoption of high quality masks. Now that Korea’s willing to share the goods with the rest of the world, get yourself a KF94 mask while you wait for the vaccine to get to you.

Search for KF94 masks here.


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