South Korea’s K-Quarantine model, which relied heavily on contact tracing technology, had been held up as an international success story in the effective management of the COVID-19 outbreak. That is at least until the country began reporting triple-digit increases in cases over the last six weeks, a fact that was further compounded by growing protests from both the country’s medical professionals and its rebellious Christian community. Adding insult to injury, the discovery of 5 million flu shots that were spoiled after being kept in high temperatures did little to quell concerns about President Moon Jae-in’s public health policies. Buffeted on every side, can Moon ride out this wave and restore the international reputation of his country?
After a promising start during the first wave of the pandemic, things started spiralling out of control over the summer. In early September some 16,000 South Korean doctors, previously supporters of Moon’s government, carried out a two week strike after a mandate was pushed through to add more doctors and resources in rural areas and unpopular specialisms. This policy change was enacted without consultation with medical professionals, even after the Ministry of Health and Welfare itself declared in February that more doctors would not resolve institutional issues. Doctors feel rightly betrayed by this medical reform program – after gruelling months pulling double shifts, many feel that the government “had done nothing to support doctors, other than just saying ‘thank you’.”
Seoul’s track and trace technology, once held up as the world’s gold standard, has also come under fire. Where other countries put in place stay-at-home orders and closed schools and businesses, Moon’s weapon of choice was a highly invasive use of technology that tracked the minutiae of his citizen’s private lives. With a second surge in cases, positive sentiment has been eclipsed by a growing discomfort. These troubling high-tech solutions involve the mining of CCTV footage, data from mobile devices, and credit card transactions. What was supposed to be a first line of defence is now increasingly seen as a tool that allows unmitigated spying on civilians.
Location-tracking GPS bracelets, similar to those given to released prisoners, have been introduced to monitor those testing positive who don’t comply with quarantine orders, while a mandatory smartphone app tracks movements of airport arrivals. All this sensitive big data, extrapolated by AI, is fed in real-time to epidemiological investigators who can map two weeks of an individual’s existence within 10 minutes. Privacy experts have said that South Korea is the only country other than China whose government has the power to collect this quantity of data at will. Not only does this level of surveillance breach US privacy laws, but it has been flagged as alarming by no less than seventeen human rights groups.
In January, the government revealed the level of their snooping. The age, gender, workplace, location, and even karaoke bar of choice of COVID-19 sufferers were made public. In a country where social media penetration is at 87%, the third-highest globally, it didn’t take long for internet trolls to identify the profiles. This ‘viral’ information spread like wildfire, facilitating severe cyberbullying, a fast growing cause of suicide in this highly-wired country.
Worryingly still, the cyberstalkers took aim at South Korea’s burgeoning Christian community after newinfections were traced to rallies held in August by a right-wing church group called the Shincheonji Church. They have become the scapegoat of Moon’s left-wing administration, – never mind that they themselves had organised a large political gathering just two days prior. Amidst accusations of governmental hypocrisy, popular pastor Jun Kwang-hoon was jailed early this month on charges of illegal election campaigning and slander for labelling the President a North Korean spy.
All this has exacerbated mounting social tensions around Moon’s reticence to allow churches to open alongside other gathering places and businesses. Social stigma, church closures and punitive measures have firmly united the group against the president. Health authorities are concerned that these marginalised churchgoers, who have resisted testing in the past, are unlikely to be encouraged to come forward now. Without their compliance it will be almost impossible to keep rising cases at bay.
If South Korea were to present a united front, the virus would be a weak enemy. But with popular frustration growing on all sides, President Moon, formerly revered as a hero, seems to be losing the battle for hearts and minds. Instead of inclusive policy making, Seoul chose to double down on surveillance technology, alienating two powerful groups – doctors and the Christian community – in the process. Even if new infection numbers fell to around 50 on September 28th, South Korea’s social wounds are far from being closed.
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