Story by YEH-RHYM CHEON
Masks have become essential to survive in this dark world.
It is now impossible to see the bright smiles of children or eat delicious food in crowded restaurants. We cannot even breathe in the fresh air of the coming warm spring at will.
After COVID-19 hit South Korea in 2020, life before the pandemic no longer exists.
Over the past year, the pandemic has changed many aspects of our daily lives. In particular, the high bankruptcy rate of small- and medium-sized enterprises harmed the economy in South Korea.
According to Gyeonggido Business & Science Accelerator, the business situation of companies in South Korea deteriorated in 2020. Particularly, hard-hit were small businesses, companies with less than $1billion in sales, and companies with fewer than 10 employees.
For small- and medium-sized enterprises that provide face-to-face service, the mandated social distancing and long-term shutdown systems make it difficult to operate and maintain the business.
Eun Kyoung Kwak, CEO of Norang EAT Academy (노랑EAT학원), has been running an education business located in Siheung, South Korea, for 14 years.
It was her pleasure to run supplementary classes such as art, mathematics, English, and Korean for elementary school students. However, her happiness will no longer exist.
“Because of the COVID-19, numbers of students have left our academy,” Kwak said in Korean over the phone.
To prevent the spread of the COVID-19, the South Korean government continues to extend the social distancing period, including the ban on gatherings of five or more people.
In order to retain students, Kwak has been offering online classes. Nevertheless, it was difficult to guarantee a high quality of teaching due to various limitations such as a lack of internet knowledge and difficulty controlling students online.
Kwak confronted financial difficulties as the number of students declined. There was no other option besides reducing the number of employees.
“I am now exhausted facing these situations caused by the pandemic. I should have dismissed them to maintain my business,” Kwak said. “I just feel sorry for the fired employees.”
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the unemployment rate in South Korea has surged as many small- and medium-sized enterprises have been going through hardship with the business operation.
Yuna Lee was one of the victims who lost her job due to the COVID-19.
Since 2019, Lee had worked part-time for six months at a mathematics academy located in Seohyeon, South Korea.
At the academy, she could take the first step towards her dream of becoming a teacher.
“Even though it was a part-time job, I worked hard because I love both children and teaching. Also, it was a great opportunity to build my career,” Lee said in Korean in a phone interview.
While she was working hard and doing well as the instructor, the COVID-19 hit South Korea, and the tragedy began.
Like other companies, her academy also suffered financial problems from the COVID-19, and Lee eventually got fired.
“After being fired, I had to find a new job to make a living,” Lee said. “But, the reality did not allow me to do it.”
She said that other companies are not hiring new employees but rather reducing the number of employees.
Lee could take this situation as she knew how COVID-19 affected society, but now she has to handle her financial challenges.
While many people are facing economic difficulties, there is a company that has benefited from the COVID-19.
OTK Corp. is one of the small beauty companies located in Asan, South Korea. Han-Jong Kim, CEO of OTK Corp., started his business in 2010 by selling facial sheet masks.
The facial sheet mask is a beauty product made of non-woven fabric containing essence, moisturizing the facial skin.
When COVID-19 just hit South Korea, there was a limit on the number of masks purchased due to a lack of mask supply.
While everyone lined up to buy the masks, Kim turned this situation into an opportunity.
“I could manufacture tons of masks with a non-woven fabric, which is a material of our sheet mask,” Kim said in Korean in a phone interview.
As a result, his product diversification strategy, applying the mask supply shortage situation, played a crucial role in increasing sales and income by 70%.
However, Kim was also worried about the situation after the end of COVID-19. He foresees sales and income to decline as the supply of masks increases over time.
Kim said that new problems arise with new social situations all the time. He added, “It is one of my challenges to resolve as a leader in an organization.”
Although Kim could generate more sales from the pandemic, he hopes for an end to COVID-19.
As an entrepreneur, Kim knows how difficult this situation can be for other companies.
He also knows that not only many companies but employees and consumers are struggling with COVID-19.
He believes that the economy of South Korea will recover when the pandemic is over. Hence, everyone will be able to live a better life than we are now.
“Even if it is impossible to take off the mask right now,” Kim said, “we will be able to breathe in the hot summer air that is coming up.”