Returning students criticized for not self-quarantining

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Returning students criticized for not self-quarantining

Koreans studying abroad are returning home to an unwelcoming public roused by a few bad apples who disregarded the government’s health recommendations regarding the novel coronavirus.

One college student living in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, was the recipient of immense public ire over the weekend after she tested positive for the coronavirus after taking a trip across Jeju just days after returning from the United States.

After her college in the vicinity of Boston suspended classes, the 19-year-old returned to Korea on a flight from New York City on March 15. But instead of remaining at home in isolation as per the government’s public health warnings, she and her mother took a four-day trip to Jeju from March 20 until last Tuesday.

Officials investigating the case said the student complained of symptoms associated with Covid-19 on the last day of the trip and subsequently tested positive at a government-designated health facility in Seoul the next day. Her mother was also confirmed to have the virus.

Infuriated by the duo’s vacation on the island, Jeju Gov. Won Hee-ryong announced he would file a lawsuit against the student for damages incurred to the businesses and people in Jeju forced to shut down or be quarantined as a result of contact with the student.

“The case is one involving a serious moral hazard,” Won said at a press briefing Thursday. “Jeju is not a refuge center. All visitors who ignore health measures like self-isolation recommendations are not welcome here.”

On the internet, people took to bombarding the student and her family with angry comments. A petition on the Blue House’s website calling for the student’s punishment received over 170,000 signatures as of Sunday.

The incident inflamed further controversy when Seoul’s Gangnam District Chief Jeong Sun-kyun held a press conference Saturday in which he appeared to defend the student and her mother by calling them “unintended victims” of the coronavirus outbreak.

Jeong said the student faced “immense stress due to a stringent academic schedule and school life” and that the duo had taken the trip to Jeju after plans to vacation in Hawaii had been canceled because of the virus outbreak.

The apology, however, only served to redirect public ire toward Jeong, who was slammed for being out of touch for inexplicably defending someone who had jeopardized the public’s health out of self-interest.

Gangnam - Seoul’s wealthiest district - and its neighboring districts of Seocho and Songpa, have particularly high proportions of families whose children study abroad. As of Sunday, Gangnam alone has recorded 11 virus confirmations involving students who have recently returned from the United States or Britain.

On Sunday, Gangwon reported a similar incident in which a recent returnee from Britain was confirmed positive for the virus after taking a trip to Gangwon’s Pyeongchang County, where the Winter Olympics were held in 2018.

The student, who returned from London on March 19, told officials that he and his family had gone into self-quarantine at a mountain resort in Pyeongchang because their home in Seoul was under renovation. But officials suspect the student had not abided by isolation recommendations given that he visited two restaurants in the area that have since been shut down for disinfection.

Infections of students returning from abroad have also been reported in Cheonan, South Chungcheong; Guri and Gwangmyeong in Gyeonggi; and Jeonju, North Jeolla, in addition to dozens of cases in Seoul.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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