[Shifting the Paradigm] Who fills in the gaps during a pandemic?
“We ask for photographs of people who test positive, to compare them to images taken by surveillance cameras. Once there was a whole family that tested positive, and the parents cried saying that they felt so sorry for the child, because the young child ‘did nothing wrong.’ When I saw the picture of the child, they had such a big smile on their face looking happy, that it made me tear up too.”
Oh Se-kyung, a 29-year-old official working at the Mapo Community Health Center in western Seoul, has moved her house from Paju, Gyeonggi, to an apartment near the center due to the overwhelming working hours she had to undertake because of the coronavirus. She works 11 to 12 hours every day, but says that it’s a lot less work compared to the earlier stage of the pandemic, when she and her team had to stay after midnight to get through their workload.
Reports say that the coronavirus has changed all corners of society, whether it’s out in the streets or inside people’s homes. The number of daily new infections appear on the news every day, as well as reports on how people’s lifestyles and consumption patterns have changed dramatically over the past few months.
Behind every single number is a person, and while life as we know it has somewhat ceased to exist since the outbreak of the pandemic, many have no choice but to continue on.
It’s the story of these people, who have filled in the gaps where policies and laws could not reach, the people who cannot stop in a society that has stopped, that has kept Korea going. The Korea JoongAng Daily met with people working in various fields to ask how their lives have changed before and after the virus.
At the virus-stricken forefront
For Park Jeong-mi, a 52-year-old epidemiologist working at the Mapo Community Health Center, her day begins at 7 a.m. when she gets a hold of the number of people who tested positive the previous day. She starts by calling each one to ask where they went from the day their symptoms started to form a complete outline of their whereabouts until the day they were tested. Most people cooperate, but not everyone.
“The first reaction people have when we tell them they’ve tested positive is surprise — frightened, almost,” said Park. “Most people try to tell us everything they can remember, but it’s often the case that even they can’t recall when their symptoms began, where they were or what they were doing. And sometimes, they keep things secret because they feel guilty about the people who will have to be quarantined because of them. We do get their timeline after GPS and card usage traces, but those things take time.”
Before the coronavirus, Park had been working as a dentist at a community center. But since March this year, the center shut down all services and became a screening station for Covid-19. Park was then trained as an epidemiologist by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. She’s been working for over 20 years, but this is by far the busiest she’s ever been.
Every morning she interviews the patients to see where they went, alerts the shops and people that they have come in contact with, searches for further details that could involve other people and notifies anyone who needs to be quarantined. Because the health center operates the screening station on weekends and patients from other districts visit to be tested, her work doesn’t stop on a Friday evening.
“The Seoul government was really quick to deal with the situation and the guidelines on how to determine whether someone needs to be quarantined or not are quite detailed,” she said. "But there are times when the distinction isn’t easy, and it’s up to me to decide whether or not someone should be quarantined. Those are the times where I need to draw the line, and it really scares me. What if I’m responsible for not catching a potential patient and starting a cluster of infections?”
Just as Park struggled to fill in the gaps of where individual rules or policies couldn’t reach, Kang, a nurse working at an emergency room of a hospital in Seoul that also runs a screening station, also said the lack of protocol is the hardest factor to deal with while working amid the pandemic. Patients have always been demanding and the ER has always been busy, but now she must deal with the new types of complaints and the new layout of the ER that’s changed because of the coronavirus.
"We have protocol and our own set of rules now, and we've also settled into working under the guidelines from the government,” she said. “But at first, the government was changing everything and it was up to us to work out how to apply the rules to the patients that we got. Even now there are cases where people shout at us for testing them or for not testing them according to the rules, but we are the ones that have to take their anger and explain to them what the government doesn’t.”
Park Jung-wook, a nurse who has been working at a screening station in Mapo District since February, also said that the toughest part of dealing with Covid-19 is that medical staff are left to explain the things that the government or the media doesn’t. Whenever people hear that there’s been an infection near their office or a person they met has tested positive, they immediately visit the health center and ask for a test — but that’s not how it works.
“We have rules on who we test,” he said. “Either you’re contacted by the community health center or you must have a symptom. We understand that they’re worried, but a concern isn’t enough to be a reason. If someone should be tested and quarantined, our epidemiologists will seek them out and contact them when an investigation has been completed. People shout at us for just sending them back home, but we still have to explain the same thing ten, a hundred times every day because the government and media keep saying that if you’re suspicious or concerned, then you should go to a nearby screening station.”
The dangers of delivery
When the strictest social distancing guidelines were in place and people were encouraged to stay home, delivery workers bore the brunt. To avoid shopping malls and grocery stores people simply ordered the necessities to be delivered to their doorsteps. The amount of parcels delivered within the first half of this year increased by over 30 percent compared to last year, and an average deliverer worked six days a week, 71.3 hours weekly and over 12 hours each day this year, according to the National Human Rights Commission. In 2020 alone, 15 delivery workers are said to have died due to overwork, according to a special committee representing the families of the deceased.
“It’s unfair,” wrote a deliverer in his 50s who took his own life last month in Busan in a note he left. He had been working for a logistics company in Busan as a contract worker since February. “We have to buy our own trucks and license plates. But in reality, we make less than 2 million won [$1,800] a month. I hope no one else ends up like me.”
In March, a 47-year-old surnamed Kim died while delivering parcels in Ansan, Gyeonggi. In April, a 33-year-old deliverer also surnamed Kim fell asleep in his house in Paju, Gyeonggi, and didn’t wake up the next morning. In May, it was a worker surnamed Jeong.
“Many of the people that died were young, in their 30s and 40s,” the committee representative said. “They delivered an average of 6,000 to 10,000 parcels every month and worked 70 to 80 hours a week. Since it’s hard for us to get hold of all data in Korea, we assume that more people would have died due to overwork.”
Food delivery orders have also been on a steep rise since the beginning of this year. In August alone, 1.67 trillion won worth of food was ordered and delivered across Korea, recording an 83 percent increase compared to the same period last year. Compared to the first half of last year, 11.9 percent more people died while riding a motorcycle within the first half of this year, putting the total at 253 people, “due to the increased number of delivery services amid Covid-19” according to police.
It's not just the huge increase in workload that's affecting these workers, but also the fierce competition among deliverers — or riders, as they are referred to in Korea — against time. Since the virus outbreak, more people have been turning to delivery jobs, after learning that the demand has gone up across the country.
Woowa Brothers’ delivery service Baedal Minjok, or Baemin, the biggest in Korea, started allocating deliveries from restaurants to riders using artificial intelligence in July. The program calculates the amount of time that the rider would take from his current position to picking up the food and delivering it to the customer “in the most efficient way possible.” But there’s a catch: The distance is calculated in a straight line on the map regardless of whether there’s even a road there or not. When they’re late, they get penalized.
“We’re forced to speed and sometimes even ignore traffic lights,” said Lee, a rider in his 40s who has been working for five years. “I’m not saying that it’s right for us to do so. But there’s no choice. If we’re late, then we get penalized. Or worse, the customers cancel the order and we don’t get paid but have to pay the restaurant for the food. The law forbids people from forcing deliverers to cut their time, but the artificial intelligence is using the loophole to force us to push ourselves.”
A difficult definition
Last month, Seongdong District Government in eastern Seoul became the first regional government in Korea to bring up the idea of defining key workers by promulgating the Seongdong District Municipal Ordinance on Protection and Support of Key Workers on Sept. 10. The ordinance defined key workers as those who must continue their labor amid disasters to maintain the functions of a society, such as the safety of residents and the minimum level of living standards, “which includes face-to-face work.”
But many of such workers were unable to notice any immediate change.
“I didn’t know that such a law was being made,” said a street cleaner in his 50s, who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s the same for us. The amount of waste feels similar, just a little more food waste. We’re not allowed to talk to each other, though. The mask makes it hard to breathe when work gets tough, but we can’t say a word to each other unless it’s really important.”
Another worker in his 30s said that he’s gotten used to working amid Covid-19, but what did concern him was the people, not the work.
“It’s scary because we’re always outside, and there’s always someone who’s not wearing their face masks. Who knows who has the virus? What if it’s the person that just passed by? Everything is so scary, but we work because we have to. We don’t have a choice,” he said.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) put together a task force within the party to put forward the first Key Worker Protection Act at the National Assembly, led by Rep. Kim Young-bae. Numerous other existing laws would have to be amended to make sure that key workers get the support they need, but the Key Worker Act itself would give a definition on who qualifies as a key worker and allow them to receive government support. The bill hasn’t been put forward yet, but according to Rep. Kim, the definition of key workers will center around “people who must work face-to-face with other workers during disasters.”
“Key workers have not been visible when we were living our ordinary lives,” said Kim. “Amid the coronavirus disaster, a lot of people have been prohibited from continuing their daily routines. We have come up with methods to protect the people or help them protect themselves amid a crisis, but we have not been able to protect the people who must expose themselves to danger in order to protect others. This law will be passed in an effort to keep them safe.”
The act will thus be formed in a way to ensure the safety of as many workers as possible, spanning across a range of diverse job positions — not just those defined as workers by the Labor Act. Because the idea of key workers had never been set out by the law, who will be included in the category will be the most crucial matter as well as what measures will be taken to meet the needs of the respective fields, according to Professor Jang Ik-hyun of social policy at Hanshin University.
“The people who are being defined as key workers — caretakers, security guards and medical staff — had always been exposed to poor working conditions, in both the terms of their work and their contracts,” said Jang. “Temporary support won’t really be meaningful unless their basic working conditions are improved. It’s crucial that [the law] makes it possible for key workers to work in a better environment in the first place. I hope this becomes an opportunity for society to pay attention to workers who provide essential labor that the society cannot do without, but still remain in poor working and payment conditions.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]