The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States and the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Korea occurred on the same day. In the two months since then the course of each country’s outbreak has been radically different.
As of a week ago, the United States was reporting around 15 times more confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths than South Korea despite having only about six times the population. South Korea has likewise reduced its rate of new daily cases to one-tenth of its peak while the United States likely won’t see its peak for some time.
The biggest factor in that disparity is that South Korea began ramping up testing more quickly and implementing preventive measures, such as school closures and stay-at-home orders earlier and in uniform, as opposed to piecemeal fashion as we have done in the U.S. South Korea is not out of the woods yet — they are currently bracing for a second wave of COVID-19 — but they flattened the curve more effectively and are thus ahead of us on the timeline.
This is obviously a phenomenon with society-wide implications, but for our purposes here, it has implications for professional sports as well. To that end, ESPN published a story today about how KBO baseball in Korea is likely to be the first major professional sports league to resume its schedule. The story focuses on former major league pitcher Dan Straily, who now pitches for the Lotte Giants of the KBO. He talks about how his team and league in Korea have approached things there with respect to training and communication and things of that nature.
It’s an interesting read, but my biggest takeaway from it is not necessarily about what we should have done vs. what Korea has done or anything like that. I mean, there are countless ways the United States has completely screwed up its COVID-19 response via incompetence and worse, but this ESPN article does not get into that in a super effective way, nor does it take into account various differences between the U.S. and South Korea, separate and apart from the competence of its leaders, which would likely have led to at least some level of disparate results regardless. That’a a topic best left to a more in-depth article.
No, my biggest takeaway is how precarious and uncertain the return of baseball is even in South Korea, where things have gone better than in most places. As the article notes, one sick player, one sick trainer, and the timeline will be pushed back farther. And even if that doesn’t happen, the normal acts of ballplayers — getting a new ball from the ballboy to the ump to the catcher to the pitcher — are all coming under new scrutiny and are cloaked in uncertainty and unease.
It’s the sort of thing that makes me seriously question whether professional sports can come back on anything approaching the timeline those in power are currently envisioning. And whether they should be coming back this year at all.