A concerted effort to heal the scars of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has widened social, political and economic divisions during its two-year reign, was one of the top wishes from ordinary people in Korea for the New Year.
As much as the COVID-19 crisis has isolated people and affected their daily routines, it also has shed light on the importance of interpersonal ties and solidarity.
The Korea Herald interviewed 10 people -- COVID-19 frontline nurses, a Seoul-based TikToker and influencer, a 25-year-old preparing to enter the working world after passing the civil service exam, and more -- to get a glimpse into what people are hoping for in 2022.
Yoon Tae-shik, deputy minister for international affairs at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, feels that people have become less tolerant and considerate of others after going through a tough 2021, during which “we could not see an inch ahead of us.”
So his one of top wishes for the New Year is for “a society in which people can sincerely listen to others who have different thoughts and opinions, and embrace others with open hearts.”
As a personal wish, the 52-year-old father of three, said he hopes to be able to gather with friends and go on a family trip.
Kang Sung-jin, professor of economics at Korea University in Seoul, agrees that South Korea has become more polarized. The level of social division and conflicts was “remarkable” in 2021, he said.
“Although Korea’s per capita gross national income has already grown nearly to the levels of advanced countries, social and environmental values -- factors that affect quality of life -- still have a long way to go,” he said.
While the professor echoed Yoon in calling for a society where people can sympathize with and encourage each other, he also stressed the importance of giving hope to younger generations.
“I truly hope that the COVID-19 situation will be overcome as soon as possible so that young people can have more opportunities to realize their dreams and live with a light of hope, not despair, for the future,” he said.
Every day was a struggle for COVID-19 frontline nurses and small-business owners in the past year. Those interviewed by the Korea Herald voiced their desperate desire to see real improvements in 2022.
“I often feel frustrated by the prolonged crisis, but my coworkers and patients give me the strength to carry on,” said Woo, a nurse at the National Medical Center, whose No. 1 wish for 2022 is to go on a summer vacation with her children this year.
Another nurse surnamed Lee who works at a state-designated COVID-19 hospital in Daegu, North Gyeongsang Province, said she saw many colleagues quit after struggling to balance work and family back home.
“I hope that the number of state-designated COVID-19 hospitals as well as medical workers will increase,” said Lee, adding that she expects the new government to offer proper compensation to medical staff at the dedicated hospitals across the nation.
Kim Ki-hong, co-chairman of a special committee designed to promote interests of the self-employed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said 2021 was a year of darkness.
Even though the nation’s vaccination rate has reached 80 percent, business restrictions have been placed on high-risk businesses, including saunas, pubs and gyms, following another record rises in cases, driven mainly by new variants.
Kim, who runs a PC room in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, stressed that the government’s quarantine measures to protect people from the virus were done at the expense of small merchants. “We should strike a proper balance between supporting the self-employed and small business owners and preventing the spread of virus infections.”
Young people found increasing job insecurity coupled with soaring living costs as obstacles to pursue their dreams.
Yoon Yeong-bin, 25, who last year made her parents proud by passing the state exam to become an entry-level, grade 9 civil servant, expressed concerns about her friends still looking for jobs.
“I wish for more jobs to become available, along with improvement in employment and welfare,” she said.
She spoke about the overall living costs stifling younger generations.
“I hope they (the government) tackle the housing issue. It would allow (people to) get married and have kids, but it’s not an option for us right now because of the ridiculous home prices.”
Although political circles paid keen attention to young voters in their 20s and 30s last year, questions still remain as to whether they truly heeded their voices as they fail to come up with practical measures for change, said Kang Min-jin, who leads a youth chapter of the minor progressive Justice Party.
“Young people have always been vulnerable to social problems, including job insecurity, digital violence and poverty, or an unexpected crisis like the COVID-19. I hope that the new government will not just regard young people as votes, but share the burden and responsibility of the youth, instead of telling them to overcome hardships on their own,” she said.
She added that voices of economically-challenged, sick and lonely young people should be heard more, saying that political circles and media outlets focus mainly on certain young groups, like those living in the Seoul metropolitan area, white-collar workers and four-year college graduates.
Non-Korean residents are hoping for a passage of an antidiscrimination bill to protect foreign workers and minorities. Anti-discrimination bills have been drafted several times since 2007 but never passed the final stage due to opposition from the conservative bloc and religious groups.
The bill would ban direct and indirect discrimination based on gender, disability, medical history, age, origin, ethnicity, race, skin color, physical condition, marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I have some friends who are from the Philippines, and I want to see them receive more protection from their employers and safer working conditions,” said David Stewart, 31, who teaches English at a high school in South Chungcheong Province.
“I want to see a society where people fight for the well-being of others as strongly as they tend to fight for themselves,” he added.
On a personal level, he wishes that some aspects of Korean society that were harshly affected by the COVID-19 situation, such as saunas, could return to normalcy soon.
“Missing out on things we are used to for daily comfort or routine can really negatively impact our flow.”
Patrick Ramos, a Seoul-based TikToker and influencer said passage of the anti-discrimination bill could potentially be a step in the right direction in providing much needed protection for diverse members of the society.
“As a foreigner living here for the past 4 years, I don’t sense any real change will be beneficial at the expense of non-Korean residents,” he said.
As the country is poised to elect a new president in March, CedarBough Saeji, assistant professor in Korean and East Asian studies at Pusan National University, said she would like to see the new government using its ingenuity to find new ways to tackle issues.
With worldwide music sensation BTS, Korean TV drama “Squid Game” becoming Netflix‘s most-watched show of all time in 2021 and the film “Parasite” wining the Oscar, the country has developed international cultural capital because of the creativity and ability of Koreans.
“Isn’t it time for Korean politicians to similarly stop benchmarking off others, think outside the box and by doing so, show the world a new way to solve problems?” she said.
The professor also urged Korean companies to take substantial steps to lessen their impact on the environment -- even when that might temporarily increase their costs or decrease their profits.
As for her biggest hope for 2022, she said: “I would like people to order less online and return to the traditional market, the sijang. Bring your canvas bags with you and pick out fresh Korean grown products to put in them. Since they aren‘t closed in, they’re actually a safer place to shop during a pandemic.”
By Korea Herald (email@example.com