South Korea sends COVID-19 ‘survival box’ to San Diegan
Forty years ago, Paul Courtright went to South Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer, helping a developing country find its place after decades of foreign occupation, poverty, disease and war.
Last month, when the United States was reeling from the coronavirus cases, South Korea returned the favor. Sent “COVID-19 Survival Boxes” to Peace Corps Alumni in the United States
When his box arrived at the San Diego home he shares with his wife, Courtright found 100 masks, antimicrobial gloves, a collapsible fan, instant coffee, candy, and silver chopsticks decorated with turtles (a symbol in Asian culture of good fortune and long life).
“The irony of South Korea sending us COVID-19 supplies and gifts is not lost on any of us,” Courtright said.
When he went there in 1979, at the age of 24, it was a catching-up country, industrializing rapidly but still dotted with impoverished rural communities. The one where he worked was a resettlement village for people with leprosy.
Courtright was an arranger who took people to doctor’s appointments on certain days and toured others, visiting villagers in their homes – “a lot of walking,” he said – to check for foot ulcers. and hands and to make sure they were taking their medication properly.
“My village was poor – a lot of houses still had thatched roofs,” Courtright said. “Yet people brought me eggs, sweet potatoes and rice. They took care of me. Today, 40 years later, this same country sends us a box to say “thank you”, it’s incredible. “
The survival kit also came with a letter from the chairman of the Korea Foundation, the diplomatic arm of the government’s Foreign Ministry.
“Thanks in large part to the assistance received from the Peace Corps,” the letter said, “Korea has since achieved an economic breakthrough.”
In 1964, measured by its gross domestic product, South Korea was among the poorest countries in the world. Now he is one of the richest.
South Korea’s response to the coronavirus outbreak – aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation – has also been viewed as first-rate, although it faces its own recent spike in cases. Since the start of the pandemic, the country has reported around 49,000 infections and 674 deaths.
In contrast, the United States has recorded more than 17.8 million cases and more than 317,000 deaths.
The Peace Corps program was initiated in 1961 by President Kennedy with the stated purpose of promoting world peace; volunteers work in education, health and other fields. Now suspended due to the pandemic, the Peace Corps has deployed more than 235,000 volunteers to approximately 140 different countries throughout its history.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education from Boise State University, Courtright enrolled in the Peace Corps, which asked him if he would go to South Korea and help leprosy patients.
He knew nothing about leprosy, an infectious disease that mainly causes nerve damage and skin damage and which was once considered so contagious and incurable that its victims were isolated in leper colonies on islands and in remote places. .
Doctors have learned that it doesn’t spread easily and is treatable, but stigma still surrounded patients in Korea, Courtright found when he arrived there after three months of Peace Corps language training. And he noticed something else: about 10-15% of the patients were blind.
“I was amazed at the different eye complications they had,” he said. He started making a four-hour bus ride every Monday to a hospital where an ophthalmologist was treating leprosy patients. He reported what he had learned in his village of around 600 residents and then in other resettlement communities.
And then he made it the vocation of his life.
At the end of his two-year term with the Peace Corps, Courtright returned to the United States and received an MA from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from UC Berkeley in public health. Then he set about trying to prevent blindness, mainly in Africa, where he and his wife, Dr Susan Lewallen, founded the Kilimanjaro Center for Community Ophthalmology.
“Korea taught me a lot of things and it gave me my career,” Courtright said. “I always felt like it gave me more than I gave it.”
This, he said, made the “survival box” all the more touching.
Courtright was so moved that he sent a thank you letter to Geun Lee, president of the foundation who sent the box. “You should be proud of the beautiful, enchanting, fascinating and welcoming country you call home,” he wrote.
Lee quickly emailed her back.
“Although decades have passed, the country where you spent years of your cherished youth has not and will not forget this affection,” he wrote. “We are making it and will continue to pass it on from generation to generation.”
Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.