Friday, May 15, 2020

Korea's handling of COVID-19 and the Itaewon outbreak

South Korea's handling of its coronavirus outbreak has been praised for its efficiency and results, and I'm certainly glad to be living in a country with competent leadership that has dealt with it so well.

Still, its response has not been without faults. The government's ability to harvest personal data has allowed it to pursue an effective contact-tracing program, but has also been criticized for its breaches of privacy, making clear what some people have been up to in their free time.

Of course, tracking its citizens is nothing new for the Korean government; one has to wonder if Korea's authoritarian past has contributed to its ability to contain the virus (fellow former anti-communist dictatorship Taiwan has also done well in this regard). I couldn't help remembering the inscription on MacArthur's statue in Incheon, which read "until the last battle against the malignant infection of Communism has finally been won may we never forget it was also he who said, 'In war, there is no substitute for victory.'" To be sure, South Korea has a long history of fighting to contain ideological infection.

A friend also pointed out that one reason China's neighbours have done so well handling the virus is the very fact that they live next to China. Experience has taught them to be wary of a government that does not play by the rules (Canada is only just figuring this out; my friend Mike Spavor has been in prison, taken hostage by the Chinese government, for more than 500 days now). Despite this, while China isolated Hubei province from the rest of China but did not close airports there, allowing potential virus-carriers to leave the country and inadvertently spread it throughout the world, the Blue House chose not to close its borders to Chinese visitors (except from Hubei). If it thought the Chinese government was going to pat the it on the head for that, the PRC didn't; when the Daegu cluster caused case numbers to rise here, China quickly put in place entry restrictions on travelers from South Korea. The government here reacted with restraint as over a hundred countries placed entry bans on Koreans. Except when Japan did so - then it reacted with breathtaking childishness by banning entry to travelers from Japan. At least we can rest assured that this particular government will not let a pandemic prevent it from stirring up anti-Japanese feeling.

There have also been other problems rooted in the inability of the government and Korean society in general to get a good grasp on the fact that there are more than two million foreigners living in the country who often fall into blind spots, particularly in a society where citizenship was equivalent to ethnic identity (or at least one's father's ethnic identity).

One of the earliest examples that made my jaw drop was Korean Air's decision to "put all of its non-Korean pilots on three months of unpaid leave ... in a self-rescue effort amid worsening business conditions caused by the coronavirus outbreak." There was no mention that this might be seen as discriminatory. (I'm sure there are reasons, such as contractual ones, that the company could put forward to justify their decision, but ultimately they didn't have to because they weren't even asked.)

Another problem that arose was that, as one article put it, "Local governments in South Korea are paying emergency financial assistance to those facing difficulties due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the measures do not apply to many tax-paying foreigners." As Udaya Rai, the president of the Migrants Trade Union, put it, "Immigrants and migrant workers pay all the taxes the government requires. We pay earned income tax, aggregate income tax and residence tax. We pay taxes and other duties and it's because of discrimination we cannot receive the same money as members of society."

The article went on to mention that "Ironically, South Korean nationals from overseas can receive the lifeline support when they return to the country while tax-paying foreigners cannot." A city official made clear that the problem is that "there's a lack of legal basis to help families composed of foreigners." Ansan solved the problem by providing 70,000 won in aid to foreign residents - 70% of what Koreans were getting.

If you want to be generous, it can be argued that such discrimination is rooted in thoughtlessness or the existence of legal blind spots, as opposed to the cynical political motive noted by Brian Myers, who, before the April 15 election, noticed a banner that had gone up in his neighbourhood urging all local residents to claim their coronavirus benefit. Upon checking, however, he learned that this did not apply to foreigners, even tax-paying long-term foreigners. It was only for people qualified to vote on April 15.

This was all before a 29 year-old Korean man went clubbing in Itaewon and infected over 140 people just as the nation's daily infection numbers had dipped into the single digits and the government was planning to reopen schools and public institutions like libraries. That there were some 1,500 people in the 5 clubs he went to made it clear that there was a potential for a large outbreak. But the fact the outbreak was located in Itaewon coloured the response in a variety of ways.

In a nutshell, Itaewon serves as a symbol of the unease many Koreans feel in regard to modernity and globalization. It sits next to Yongsan Garrison, originally home to the Imperial Japanese Army, followed by the US military, a location associated with Korea's experience of being colonized and then incorporated into the post-liberation cold war order. Itaewon is associated with foreigners, with prostitution, (or even worse, Korean women who voluntarily have sex with foreign men), with clubs and decadence, with homosexuality, and with AIDS, a place with a "dark nature." It served as a center of cultural (or physical) clashes during the 1988 Olympics, but it was also a place of cultural mixing; Korea's earliest b-boys learned to break dance from black GIs in Itaewon's clubs in the 1980s, for example. In fact, it was a song and video ostensibly about that era - Itaewon Freedom - that helped turn it into a trendy neighbourhood less than a decade ago. You might think - despite the negative effects of gentrification - that this would improve its image, but in fact this further contributed to the association it has with decadence; the trendy kids, the folks from Gangnam lining up to consume foreignness, the expensive restaurants and clubs, people speaking English - these all serve as an irritant to the people who can't afford such distractions, and considering growing economic inequality, there are many people who feel this way. Tied into this is something left over from the days of Korea's forced-march development: the association of excessive consumption with immorality.

If in the 1970s decadence and consumption posed a threat to national economic development (which was often seen in military terms by state planners), then today decadently clubbing and dining is seen as posing a threat to the nation while it battles the coronavirus. So, clearly, people spreading the virus by clubbing was never going to go over well. Doing it in Itaewon in particular, considering all the national baggage associated with it, was really not going to go over well. And doing it in gay clubs? Well... that's like adding napalm to the fire.

To be sure, this is not the first time Itaewon, gay bars, and a virus have been linked in the national imagination. While the first HIV+ Koreans were often sex workers in US base camp towns (like Itaewon), and thus were not a group of people anyone was much concerned about, when a Korean man who returned from Kenya died of AIDS in February 1987, it set off a panic. As I noted in this post about that panic, AIDS became the perfect metaphor for foreign moral, sexual, and cultural contamination. One result of the panic was felt in Itaewon, as a March 12, 1987 Korea Times article noted.
Itaewon Suffers from Slack Business Due to AIDS Scare

Entertainment facilities in Itaewon frequented by foreigners as well as Korean people are suffering from a decline in business, apparently affected by the AIDS-related death of a 62-year-old man recently.

According to sources yesterday, “gay” bars and facilities exclusively for foreign clientele are on the edge of closing down with business shrinking to almost half.

The phenomena is mainly attributable to the fact that Koreans believe that the fatal disease may be transmitted by foreigners and avoid spending their leisure time there.

The so-called AIDS-phobia not only affects the business of entertainment facilities such as hostess bars or discotheques in the area, but also of restaurants and clothes shops, it is reported.

In the case of ‘D’ club where some 100 people used to throng in a bustle, some 50 people on the average visit the place to dance and drinking. Garment shops and restaurants are suffering a 30 to 40 percent decrease in sales.

The health authorities have made transvestites submit to blood tests for AIDS, but no one has been found positive in the tests.
33 years later, attitudes don't seem to have changed much. Media reports quickly pointed out that some of the clubs the initial patient visited catered to LGBTQ customers, though the patient said he was not gay (fair enough; in the past I've been to some of those clubs with gay friends myself). The result of these articles was the unleashing of a torrent of homophobia in their comment sections. Even worse, during the contact tracing process people who were at the clubs risked being unintentionally outed. It was soon noted that the entry logs for clubs (as a way to enable tracing of customers should there be a COVID-19 outbreak) featured many entries that contained false information, but that is hardly surprising; being outed is a good way to lose your job. (The cluster in Incheon seems also to have arisen due to the stigma surrounding the Itaewon outbreak.) If the Daegu outbreak was due in part to the secretive nature of the leaders of a predatory cult, the secretive behavior of those club goers is due entirely to the discrimination they face in Korean society. This has been noted in foreign news reports, which is a good thing, since the media (and no doubt the government) monitor reports from overseas. This article does a good job of summarizing the wave of issues facing the LGBTQ community in Korea. One key point is the dawning realization that homophobia and stigma are hampering health authorities' ability to control the spread of the virus. As a result, the Seoul city government announced the advent of anonymous testing (as well as free tests with no risk of deportation for undocumented foreigners). If that doesn't work, however, telecom companies used base station data to give the Seoul city government contact information for 10,905 people who spent more than 30 minutes in the club area "between midnight and 5 a.m. from April 24 to May 5." In all, some 35,000 people related to the Itaewon outbreak have been tested.

Now that much of Yongsan Garrison has moved to Pyeongtaek, it's harder to associate Itaewon with GIs, but there is another group associated with the area that has also come under the microscope: foreign English teachers. A couple days ago I did a Google search for "native speaking teacher + Itaewon" and found over 80 articles published in the past day or two. MBC (yes, the network responsible for reports like this, or, god help us all, this) got into the spirit of things by broadcasting this gem of a report by reporter Gang Hwa-gil on May 11:
More than 90 native speaking English teachers went to Itaewon … There is a nationwide emergency in schools.


The government has urged school teachers and workers who went to Itaewon clubs to voluntarily get tested.

In fact, it has been revealed that many native speaking English teachers were among the club visitors.

So far, none of these teachers have been confirmed to have the virus, but education authorities have taken steps to quarantine them at home for two weeks.

Reporter Gang Hwa-gil.


Currently, the Gangwon-do Office of Education has found that 55 faculty members visited clubs or other places in Itaewon .

They are all native speaking assistant English teachers or English teaching student volunteers [Likely from the TaLK Program].

They visited clubs, restaurants, and bars in Itaewon between April 29 and May 6.

The Gangwon-do Office of Education required all of these teachers to self-quarantine and to be tested.

[Gangwon-do Office of Education official] "The quarantine authorities only require testing for those who have been to clubs, but we’re being proactive and saying that if you went to Itaewon at all, you should be tested ..."

The problem is that, with schools set to open next week, these native speaking teachers had already gone to school.

As a result, there are worries that the other teachers they came into regular contact with when they went to work could become infected.

Ultimately, these other teachers were ordered to work from home.

[Gangwon-do Office of Education spokesperson Gwon Dae-dong] "School staff who worked [with] native-speaking assistant teachers are telecommuting. They are all self-isolating.”

As well, elementary schools running day care [during social distancing] have made students return home.

Currently, there are 274 native English teachers and 55 English teaching student volunteers working in Gangwon-do schools.

The situation in Gwangju and Jeollanam-do is similar.

It was revealed that during the long weekend 7 native speaking teachers and instructors from Gwangju and 34 native speaking teachers from Jeollanam-do visited Itaewon and Hongdae.

As of yet none of the teachers being tested have turned out to be infected, but education authorities in Gwangju and Jeollanam-do plan to have all teachers who visited clubs self-isolate for two weeks and to conduct additional detailed investigations.

As well, with the Ministry of Education strongly advising that faculty members who visited entertainment facilities in Itaewon undergo testing at screening clinics, the problem of blocking the source of infection among faculty has emerged as the biggest variable ahead of school reopening.
Even though none of the teachers are reported to have tested positive for the virus, it's a nationwide emergency! This reminds me of an old SNL sketch where a weatherman points to the death counter for a hurricane, which reads zero, but he assures viewers that 'the numbers are going to start jumping up any time now!' The report also features par-for-the-course photos of blurry classrooms and, of course, numerous club scenes.

The report was followed by, when I first looked at it, 3937 comments, but now there are only 3752, suggesting some pruning of the more negative comments has occurred. Two that were right below the report when I read it read "Throw out all the native speakers involved" and "We have lots of English majors in Korea. We don't need to use native speaking teachers here. It's a waste of foreign currency. Let's give jobs to Koreans. This is the chance." The commenter is clearly unaware that no teacher working in Korea is paid in anything but Korean currency.

MBC's negative slant is highlighted by a similar Korea Times article which ends in this way: "A senior official at the South Jeolla provincial government said however, it wouldn't be reasonable to blame the foreign teachers just because they have visited the area."

To be fair, teachers in general are going to be focused on due to schools getting ready to reopen. Schools have already pushed back the reopening schedule by one week, but some think it should be pushed back further. According to this article, "a total of 880 teachers, including 514 Korean teachers and 366 native English teachers nationwide, visited Itaewon between late April and early May." Of those, 641 people were tested, with 524 being cleared and the rest awaiting results. "Of those who went to Itaewon, 41 people -- 7 Koreans and 34 foreign nationals -- have been to the bars and clubs identified as places of transmission" and all have tested negative but for one still awaiting results.

SMOE released the following data:

158 SMOE faculty visited Itaewon, but of those, only 6 Native speaking English teachers and 8 Korean faculty visited entertainment venues, and they all tested negative. The other 144 SMOE faculty (97 Koreans and 47 foreigners) merely visited the area; all tested negative except for 33 who are awaiting results.

Yonhap, however, was unable to read this chart and reported that "some 158 teachers and school officials are confirmed to have visited such entertainment facilities in the city's popular nightlife districts, including Itaewon, from April 29 to May 6." Nice way to undermine SMOE's transparency, Yonhap.

There have been reports on foreign teachers experiencing discrimination, listening to their coworkers talking about Itaewon and "원어민교사들" within earshot, and, in one case, demanding a teacher go get tested without even bothering to ask if she'd been to Itaewon, which is clearly discriminatory. Hagwon instructors are particularly at the mercy of their bosses, who are trying to protect their income. As one foreign instructor put it, "it's very clear to me they care more about the business rather than the foreign employees and maybe the kids as well." "Maybe"?

Beyond teachers, Itaewon merchants are also critical of the government's handling of the Itaewon outbreak:
Many local traders are angry with the government and Seoul city officials. "One man visited a bar in Gangnam before he tested positive and the government was reluctant to identify him, but now they are overly stressing the fact that the latest infections occurred in Itaewon."

Club owners claim they were abiding by social-distancing orders. Lee Dae-jin of a community association of traders in the district said, "Everyone knew young people would come once the clubs were allowed to open again, and the government let us do it. The infected people went back home, but the government continues to cast the spotlight on Itaewon."

As of Wednesday, only four out of about 120 confirmed cases linked to Itaewon clubs and bars actually live in the district.
As I noted earlier, the baggage associated with Itaewon was always going to colour how this outbreak is perceived.

Returning to foreign teachers, the many negative comments on that MBC report go to show that though the media has not engaged in much negative reporting reporting on foreign teachers in the past half-decade (see an overview here), the negative attitudes toward them have not gone away. This is not surprising, since they are not only related to more traditional xenophobic attitudes, but also to the deep frustration connected with learning English, and the economic fault lines mastery of English, or lack thereof, reveal. Though foreign teachers sit at the nexus of age-old xenophobic fears and reasonable concerns about school reopenings and children's safety, they are, compared to the LGBTQ community, in a far, far more privileged position. To paraphrase what one foreign teacher wrote, 'Maybe we can take some of the heat off the gay community.' The trend in testing of educators so far suggests that this media interest in foreign teachers may be but a passing trend, however.
[Update: I may be wrong about that, considering this article was published today.]

Hopefully the fact that discrimination against the LGBTQ community is so obviously hampering the authorities' attempts to control the spread of the virus will change some minds, at least in the government, about the necessity of trying to prevent such discrimination. I'll admit I'm not all that optimistic, but one can hope.

Update, May 17:

Minutes after publishing this post I was sent a link to a Yonhap News article which argued that even if foreign teachers didn't go to Itaewon, parents should still feel anxiety and be worried about them, and maybe they should all be tested for the disease regardless. I translated that article here. A friend of a friend also translated a number of the comments left on that article. Many were critical of teachers, but quite a few were also dismissive of the 'witch hunt' going on. Still, one argued that US soldiers needed to be tested too (reminiscent of the AIDS scare in the late 1980s), and another showed a certain disturbing mindset: "They are a bad influence. I think recklessly letting foreigners in has something to do with the rising number of gays in our country. I wish we could kick the illegals out and purify the country somewhat."

Anyone hoping for the Korean government to help in such matters should prepare to be disappointed. In a recent interview on German television, Korea's foreign minister said "We don't have a consensus on the rights of the sexual minorities and people with various gender identities." Well, what can you expect from an administration led by a former human rights attorney? Ahem. Still, I suppose she did say the government was trying not to aggravate prejudice against sexual minorities while dealing with COVID-19. And I did notice that one article said to have used discriminatory language against the LGBTQ community no longer contained any when I recently read it, suggesting that either the news outlet decided to edit it or it was told to do so.

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