As COVID-19 started to take shape in February of 2020, I looked at the state of affairs of my home neighborhood in Astoria, Queens, and the Greater New York City area. Life was looking very scary with the sound of ambulance sirens nearly every hour of the day, not knowing what exactly the future had in store for me, my wife, neighbors, friends and family. There was no playbook to follow, rules were being made up on the fly, and people had to respond the best they could. Some responded with running to towns inland, others decided to bunker down and stock up on supplies as if waiting for a hurricane to knock out the power, but I was already stuck at home, forced to lay prone because of extreme back problems. I couldn’t even walk.
At the time, I was experiencing a back pain that came from the pits of hell, which forced me to lay down as if seated in a chair but flat on my back (has this ever happened to you?), and my doctor thought I had pancreatitis. After a couple days of literally, not moving, I found myself drinking only water and crawling to the bathroom. Getting in and out of bed was a process that I had to break down into single micro-movements. Weeks would go by and I would steadily regain mobility, but eventually working from home would take over and I ended up saving myself from having to commute on trains where a nasty disease was violently spreading undetected. As I settled into my new work environment, the pandemic worsened rapidly. Friends and family got sick, someone I cherished died, and I knew I had to address the question presented by The Clash. My darling home and city that I love so much could give me double the trouble if I stayed, but I needed to set clear priorities, because these would be my guiding principles for how I would respond to this pandemic.
So Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Click on read more!
So on the day the mayor extended the stay-at-home guidance, I decided it was time to go. On April 27, my wife and I got into a friend’s car, I had a mask around my face that would later leave a significant bruise, and we made our way to JFK for our 2pm flight on KE 82 to ICN, South Korea. The 14 hour journey was risky, surreal and eye-opening. This blog post is to memorialize my personal encounters of the implemented policies in NYC and South Korea during the COVID-19 crisis. From my journey, I hope to share three keys learnings that would be valuable for every executive or entrepreneur, especially in times of crisis.
The first lesson learned in this pandemic is something I shared earlier in this post. SET CLEAR PRIORITIES. Setting clear priorities will lead you through times of crisis and serve as a guiding light. Wavering between priorities means you don’t have clarity. You can avoid this by discussing potential outcomes based on hypothetical decisions to test the validity behind each priority. Working through ideas with others is important so that logic remains sound. Be mindful of potential confirmation biases though, not everyone will agree with your priorities and those are the people that you should probably listen to carefully. Understand from their perspective and test your own assumptions and priorities again. Mine became crystal clear only after I shared concerns with trusted friends and family. Don’t forget to include the feedback of others’ before setting your priorities.
While on the plane, my wife and I decided not to eat at the same time as everyone else. We felt that a better strategy was to lift our face masks when everyone else was asleep with their masks on so we asked the flight attendants to give us our meals at a later time. Since the plane was nearly empty, we each had a left and middle section to ourselves, there was plenty of space but we were concerned about the recycled airflow. Even though the mask was giving me a head ache due to restricted breathing and an abnormally large head with tight elastic bands around my temples, I tried to relax as much as possible because my back was also complaining about the seating situation, despite the whole row being available to me. It was hard to be still as I found myself constantly wiping down the area around me with Clorox wipes.
When the plane landed, we were greeted by South Korea’s army and police. About 30 plain clothed officers and army personnel welcomed us with friendly smiles and provided guidance on how to download the government application onto our phones. We were required to install this because we were informed that we’d have mandatory check-ins during our 14-day quarantine via the app. I thought to myself for a second, would this ever fly in America? (Tell me what you think!) After getting our temperatures checked and a 2.5 hour wait-time, the army finally got to us and called our primary contacts in Korea to verify our identities and purpose of visit. Once we were given the green light to proceed forward, the next 12 hours was a totally new experience from a playbook I had never seen, and left me with a sense of awe.
From Incheon airport, my wife and I had to get to Busan, the southern coastal city that some people refer to as “The LA of South Korea,” as if Seoul was New York City. In order to get to Busan though, we had to take a bullet train from Seoul train station. So here’s what happened after the immigration officer officially welcomed us to enter the country.
We left customs to pick up our bags. Got to another processing area, escorted by security. Noticed that we were surrounded by people that were on the plane, so no general public nearby. A private bus picked us up and took us to Seoul train station, 1 hour away. Arrived to Seoul train station, got escorted by another team of security personnel to the next processing area. Waited for our bullet train and got escorted to the platform, still surrounded by people from flight KE 82. We got into the first 3 cars of the train, no access to general public. We arrive to Busan, got escorted by a third team of security personnel to a nearby hotel for another round of paper work and processing. Here, we got tested for COVID-19 via nasal cavity and throat swabbing (two different swabs!). It’s now April 29, 2am local time. I never knew how deep our nasal passages were until this moment. Our test results would arrive the next day, but I thought to myself, “wow, why does NYC have zero masks, zero test kits, and such a lack of process, what gives?” We waited for another hour until our taxi arrived. The city of Busan authorized a single company to take passengers to their final destination for quarantine. And here is where I sat amazed, having been simply herded to the barn as if everything was under control. I felt safe the entire time, taken cared for, and lucky enough to be in a city that had hospital beds in case I needed one. I knew I had to give up my privacy for 14 days to help keep a nation’s people safe, but that’s a decision I made and I needed to own it. Besides, at least I had a government issued coloring book with pencils. Nonetheless, here in lies the summary of my second learned lesson, OWN EVERY DECISION.
For the next 2 weeks, my wife and I lived peacefully in the home she grew up in. We were nearby her mom and sister, who were staying with her ailing grandmother, who we were also very eager to see. On April 30th we learned that we had tested negative for COVID-19,and were clear of the virus but had to remain in quarantine and log our temperatures twice daily on the government app. We were surprised to get a couple phone calls from our designated government official, who said that the GPS signal on one of our phones was lost. They asked us to check the app settings to immediately verify that we were still in the quarantine location. But never did we feel like this was too intrusive, as the government official was kind and friendly over the phone, never demanding or short tempered. They treated us like humans and as if there was a pre-built system of trust already in place. They expected that we were in the home and that the phone was misbehaving.
I realized here, that the way we treat others and are treated by others makes a tremendous statement about the definition of our cultures. Systems and policies are created on top of pre-existing cultures, and unless the culture can support these policies, or vice versa, policies will weaken or strengthen the cultures that are already in place. If a policy or system fails, it’s likely due to the fact that the policy makers never understood the culture. Or, it’s because the necessary changes to the culture were never shaped in partnership with the policy makers. So if we take learned lesson 1 and 2, to drive a safer environment for communities to thrive, we must set clear priorities and own every decision to enable the most important lesson learned. BE A CULTURE MAKER. Our actions, off the cuff language, demeanor, are expressed even more loudly during times of crisis because there is little to no room to think about how information is being delivered or being received. But this is the time when we all must rely on each other, to preserve our species, our humanity. If you are a true leader, this is the time to emerge from the trenches with a deeper sense of belonging, to a community and culture that you have helped shape and create.