SEOUL — Forget puppies, who need to be housebroken and sometimes chew your shoes. The government in South Korea, looking to help people fight the mental strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic, is turning to plants.
It announced this month that it will offer a first batch of 2,000 “pet plant kits” to people living in self-quarantine to help them battle depression and other mental health conditions brought on, or exacerbated, by the pandemic.
“We understand that the general public is suffering from feeling blue and fatigue because of drawn-out COVID-19 and some people are calling such state of mind 'COVID-19 Blue,'” said Yoon Tae Ho, the head quarantine official at South Korea’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters.
Yoon said officials are looking to plants “to help soothe the minds of people under self-quarantine” and to create indoor gardens at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.
In South Korea, the color green is associated with healing, and plants are often used to soothe the nerves.
A plant called Sanhosu, or Coralwood in English, has been chosen for the job, in part because it’s indigenous and also because it is associated with bravery, said Lee Yong Kwon, director of the forest education and healing division at the Korea Forest Service, which has been developing national programs involving forestry to serve the society at large.
Lee said the idea of pet plants was developed for several reasons.
First, he said, a plant can ease the loneliness often felt by people in isolation by providing companionship and bonding.
“Also, the pet plant will naturally lead to physical movement as it needs to be watered,” he said.
But most of all, he said, it is a way to let people in isolation know that society is cheering them on through the hard times and appreciates their suffering for the sake of the greater community.
The government has also set up a Forest Healing Program for first responders and their families, providing green spaces across the country where they can rest for a day — or even stay overnight.
“We at the Korea Forest Service regard the forest to have healing powers by providing a psychologically calming effect, helping people to feel refreshed and recover from stress,” Lee said.
Although South Korea has been grappling with recent spikes in coronavirus cases, the country has been praised for controlling the outbreak through rigorous testing, aggressive contact tracing, social distancing and quarantine measures.
It has managed to limit the number of deaths so far to 280 — a much smaller number of fatalities than in the U.S., much of Europe or Asia.
Last month, the South Korean government unveiled what it called “everyday life quarantine,” a set of measures allowing people to engage in a certain level of economic and social activities while maintaining distance to slow the spread of the virus.
But a two-week quarantine is still mandatory for anyone who may have been in contact with confirmed cases as well as for those entering South Korea from abroad.
According to South Korea’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, nearly 370,000 South Koreans have received psychological counseling for stress and anxiety since the nation was hit by COVID-19 in late January. Of those, 43 percent, or more than 160,000, were people in self-quarantine. Nearly 17,000 were people sick with COVID-19.
Mental health experts across the world have sounded the alarm about the effect of the pandemic on mental health after millions of people spent months in isolation.