A sensitive approach is neededA new nationwide outbreak of community infection is feared in Korea after weeks of control due to sprawling cases of infection stemming from clubgoers in central Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood during the long holiday week earlier this month.
New infection cases totaled 35, spiking to double digits after two cases on May 6 — a day after the long holiday week ended. The number of confirmed cases has exceeded the people discharged from self-quarantine for the first time in 60 days. Secondary infections traced to those who enjoyed a night out in Itaewon are increasing rapidly. Some of those who had been to Itaewon clubs and bars over the holiday had returned to work at hospitals, department stores, call centers and beauty clinics without knowing that they may have been infected.
A greater worry is that most of the clubgoers are unreachable, which helps delay the verification of their health status. According to the Seoul city government, 5,517 people are estimated to have been to clubs and bars over the long holiday and of them, 3,112 cannot be contacted. Many of their contact numbers turned out to be inaccurate or false. Police are considering accessing their mobile phone information to hunt them down by force.
The followers of the Shincheonji Church, where a cluster infection occurred, were tracked down by force. But there is a limit to the forcible inspection of the Itaewon clubgoers, as there is no reliable list of them. Since the clubgoers include foreigners and members of the LGBTQ community, unnecessary instances of discrimination could emerge. Undocumented foreigners may also be worried about reporting themselves.
Given the sensitivities, authorities should take a flexible approach to dealing with the affair. They must encourage voluntary testing and promise confidentiality.
The response by Gyeonggi could be used as an example. The provincial government demanded that all residents who had been to clubs in Itaewon or 24-hour spas in southern Seoul over the long holiday get tested for Covid-19 by May 17. Clubgoers must also isolate themselves for at least two weeks. Anyone who does not oblige with the rule could face a jail term for two years or a maximum fine of 20 million won ($16,000). The measure could be expanded nationwide.
A battle against a stealth virus is not easy. Authorities must amend quarantine guidelines. More detailed guidelines are needed now.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 12, Page 30