By Emma Nijssen
Compared to the rest of the world, life in South Korea under the COVID19 pandemic has been fairly normal. The country never instituted a full lockdown nor a curfew, barely decreased maximum capacity in bars and restaurants, and was late to vaccinate its population, yet had daily case numbers well under one thousand for most of 2020 and 2021. This raises the question: how did South Korea achieve this feat–and is it worth the compromises necessary to make it possible?
In South Korea, wearing masks has been commonplace since long before the current pandemic. People wear them to protect themselves from air pollution or as a form of face covering, much like Hollywood celebrities may wear a hat or sunglasses to protect themselves from unwanted attention. This normalization of masks helped lessen the shock of having to wear masks every day, everywhere. South Korea’s government also took immediate action to provide masks early on in the pandemic when their supply was limited, via a rationing system where pharmacies sold only a limited number of masks to each person on a specified weekday based on their birth year, and at normal prices. Public health messaging around masks also takes a very different angle in South Korea versus the rest of the world. Banners in parks invite people to wear masks to “protect the people around you,” rather than as a personal protective measure. Social distancing measures are framed with an attitude of encouraging teamwork and collective effort in order to protect everyone.
South Korea’s contact tracing methods have received scrutiny from abroad due to what some may consider to be invasive procedures. People who receive a positive COVID19 test result are first asked to provide an itinerary of their movements in the past few days, which is then published publicly. Triangulation of cell phone data, credit card logs, and security camera footage is used to identify exactly which people were at a place of possible exposure at the time that a confirmed COVID19 patient was present. In rare cases where such data is not available, extra efforts are taken to identify and contact possible exposed individuals; for example, I once received an emergency text message asking a person to come forward who had taken a taxi from location A to location B at 2:36 p.m. and had paid with cash–and was therefore untraceable–when their taxi driver later tested positive. While this high degree of public surveillance rings alarm bells in the West, it has proven to be an extremely effective tool for contact tracing. In a country where it is already mandatory to provide government ID in order to sign up for an online game or forum, such concerns about privacy or freedom come second to an effective pandemic response.
However, this approach has not come without issues. Forceful public exposure of the itineraries of confirmed patients led to career-ending moments for several celebrities and politicians who tested positive, and their published records indicated that they had visited illicit or distasteful businesses. To a lesser degree, celebrities would often receive scorn for posting photos without a mask on, or for traveling overseas. The highly public nature of South Korea’s approach has also fueled societal divisions, as the information which is published about each confirmed case is often enough for a casual audience to identify which demographic group that person belongs to. After a massive outbreak in a cult-church early on in the pandemic, churches all over the country posted banners on their doors repudiating that specific religious group whose in-person masses were seen as largely responsible for the virus’ domestic spread. Likewise, a cluster outbreak at a gay club in Seoul triggered hate speech toward the LGBTQ+ community, raising concerns that persons exhibiting symptoms may refuse to come forward for testing and treatment in fears of persecution.
South Korea’s population is highly ethnically homogeneous, with foreigners representing less than 5% of its population. The country’s COVID19 response has received criticism for exhibiting signs of xenophobia and being unfair to the foreign population. The emergency text messages would specify unnecessarily that a confirmed case was a “foreigner,” fueling discriminatory rhetoric which framed the foreign population as being at fault for the continued spread in Korea. Early on in the pandemic, foreign nationals were required to jump through hoops such as providing proof of a medical examination for COVID19 in order to enter the country–meanwhile F4 visa holders (ethnic Koreans without Korean citizenship) received a special exemption.
History teaches us that the goodness of a government toward its people is volatile. Memories are fresh in the minds of many communities of governments who abused their power over their people, and this reason is often cited as an explanation for keeping control of power and data out of the hands of the government. But while South Korea’s abusive military dictatorship ended only four decades ago, the population’s high trust in their government is the driving factor behind their highly effective public health management. While the South Korean case may be too contextual to be applied elsewhere, it does teach an interesting lesson about the ways in which our institutions can, and should, serve us in massive ways.
Photo by Martin Sanchez on unsplash.com