Pandemic boosts cosmetic surgery in South Korea

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A 20-year-old university student Ryu Han-na got cosmetic surgery on her nose in mid-December, figuring it might be the last chance to do it covertly before people start taking off masks as vaccines become more widely distributed. 

Much of the world is waiting for vaccines to help wind down the global health crisis in 2021, but for some South Koreans, it’s a deadline to reshape their face and recover behind a mask.

A face mask mandate in the country and working from home has fueled a boom for South Korea’s famous cosmetic surgery clinics.

Ryu Han-na shelled out thousands of dollars to have her nose done in December.

“I thought it would be best to get it done now before people start taking off their face masks when vaccines become available.”

Ryu took her courses online through 2020 and while she still can, she wants to recuperate at home and go out in public without drawing attention.

“There will be bruises and swelling from the surgery but since we’ll all be wearing face masks, I think that should help.”

South Korea is a world capital of plastic surgery, even during non-pandemic times and industry data shows it was worth about $10 billion US dollars last year.

But Ryu’s surgeon, Park Cheol-woo, says there’s been a recent surge of interest.

“Both surgical and non-surgical inquiries about the eyes, eyebrows, nose bridge and foreheads – the only visible parts – have certainly increased.”

And government data shows that over 10 percent of South Korea’s emergency stimulus payments were spent in hospitals and pharmacies just behind supermarkets and restaurants.

Details of which hospitals and pharmacies weren’t disclosed in that data, but another surgeon, Shin Sang-ho, told Reuters that people spending their stimulus boosted the recent revenue of his clinic in the glitzy district of Gangnam.

“I felt like it’s sort of a revenge spending. I’ve sensed that customers were expressing their pent-up emotions (from the coronavirus) by getting cosmetic procedures.”

This surgery boom may end up as a short-lived spark, however.

South Korea’s recently struggled with a third virus wave – with daily case numbers breaking records.

Ryu’s surgeon, Park, says he’s seen a number of recent cancellations by his clients, as people stay inside to ride out the wave.