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Contact Tracers Face Unique Hardships Across The World

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's been happening daily in similar ways across the world during this pandemic. And even now, as vaccines are rolling out, the phone rings, and at the other end, someone says something like this.

HAGAR LIKHOVSKI: Hello. I'm talking from the Ministry of Health, and I saw that you did a coronavirus test, and I wanted to know if you got the answer already.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was 20-year-old Hagar Likhovski, an Israeli soldier assigned to the Health Ministry to do contact tracing. The answers she refers to is someone's positive test. As part of NPR's International Desk feature, Same Here, we recently connected her for a chat with another contact tracer far away.

YI SEONJU: (Through interpreter) Hi. My name is Yi Seonju, and I work in the epidemiological investigation team at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yi Seonju is in Osan, South Korea, and is 39. And like many Korean contact tracers, she is a professional epidemiologist. They talk to each other about getting people to open up and their tough work on different sides of the world.

YI SEONJU: (Through interpreter) I'm most curious about what it's like for you at age 20 to do the work of contact tracing. Here in South Korea, most epidemiological investigators are in their early or mid-30s with masters or doctor's degrees. I admire and envy that you are doing such professional work at such a young age.

LIKHOVSKI: Thank you so much, first of all. Actually, I'm one of the older people. Some people here are 18-year-olds because we are joining the army at 18. So it is weird because we - sometimes the other person on the line is much older than us. But we try to do it - first of all, we try to be as professional as we can, and we try just to talk to people as nicely as we can. I mean, we know that they're dealing with stuff that probably are much bigger than us, and we haven't dealt with them yet - yeah, just being very humble.

YI SEONJU: (Through interpreter) Personally, I feel the interviews, talking directly to people, is the hardest part.

LIKHOVSKI: Yeah. I can relate. What's difficult in it for you?

YI SEONJU: (Through interpreter) In the beginning of the pandemic, patients didn't want people to find out about their infection. They were socially stigmatized. So interviewing them was very difficult. Persuading them to tell us who they had met, where they had visited, whether they had been at any high-risk places was the most difficult. I wonder if you've had similar difficulties in Israel.

LIKHOVSKI: Yeah, I think I can relate to a lot of that. I think mostly it's about people thinking that it's better if they don't tell us where they've been and who they've met because then those people won't be in isolation. So sometimes people don't tell us just because they think it's what's best for their families or friends. And that's, like, our job to explain, to them why the better option is to tell us and so the virus won't be spread. So I think that's probably the most difficult part - like, not knowing if they tell us the whole truth.

YI SEONJU: Yeah.

LIKHOVSKI: Is it, like, the same - like, what methods do you use to try to persuade people and convince them that they should tell you where they've been?

YI SEONJU: (Through interpreter) I try to stress the ways we can help them. Most people are cooperative in giving us their itineraries. For those who are not, we do warn them that there can be legal consequences, but some patients who are old have difficulty remembering the details. In that case, we deploy other technological measures to get help.

LIKHOVSKI: I just wanted to hear - maybe you have, like, a story about a patient, about an interview that you did that was interesting or heard something that I can learn from if I'm in the same situation.

YI SEONJU: (Through interpreter) The most memorable interviews are the most heartbreaking ones. It was an old woman, a grandmother who had passed away, and I interviewed her son. Everyone in the family had tested positive. And I had to ask the son about his mother, who he had just lost. I remember how sorry and sad I felt. I actually had difficulty recalling that memory because I usually don't have time to think about one particular case. I have to move right on to the next case, so it's rare to hang on to emotions. I remember some of them now only because I'm thinking back to those moments.

LIKHOVSKI: I had one I think that was the, like, hardest one technically and emotionally for me. Before I call, like, a patient, I look up in their file and see, like, how old are they, where they live, stuff like that. And I saw that she was hospitalized and that she was ventalized (ph), so she was in a pretty bad state. And I found out that she was hospitalized not because of coronavirus, because she was pregnant and because she was in a bad state. And yeah, I found out she, like, had her baby two days before that. And her husband saw them, like, with all this equipment just for, like, a few minutes, and he was in an emotional state. I mean, he couldn't be with his wife and his 2-day-old baby. It's really hard for me to ask them, like, all these personal questions. A few days after that, I looked up what her status because I wanted to see if she's OK, and she was eventually OK. I have a question. I wonder how - what it's

like to talk to different people in South Korea. Like, because here, like, we have communities that are really different from each other, even, like, the language and the manners and everything. So I wonder if it's like that for you.

YI SEONJU: (Through interpreter) Yes. I had assumed that South Korea has a pretty homogenous culture and way of life. But doing contact tracing, I've learned that there are vastly different kinds of businesses and recreational activities. For example, I got to learn about the business model of traveling vendors that hold sale sessions for groups of people. And I also learned about the culture of older citizens and how they spend their days.

LIKHOVSKI: I think Israel - like, I knew before that we have a lot of different cultures and a lot of, like, different people and different communities here. But talking to people, like, just a person-to-person has been mind-opening just to talk to people that I usually don't meet in my day-to-day life because, like, they're not in my specific community. I had one phone call with an Arab woman. And she was really funny, and she was really nice and warm and everything. And at the end, she invited me for - to drink tea at her village. And I was like, yeah, I'll come right now. And then she was like, no, you can't because I'm supposed to be isolated. And I was like, oh, yeah, you're right. I forgot about that. So it was a really nice conversation, and I don't think I would have met her in my life or talked to her or had this little funny moment with her. Personally, I like it, that I get to meet, through a phone call, people different from me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Hagar Likhovski from Israel and Yi Seonju from South Korea talking to each other about their experiences contact tracing. They were brought to us by Greg Dixon, Daniel Estrin and Se Eun Gong on NPR's International Desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.