Embassies question forced testing of expats
"The British Embassy has made clear to the national government and to the Seoul and Gyeonggi administrations, that we consider these measures are not fair, they are not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective," said Simon Smith, British ambassador to Korea in a video message posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.
"We've also raised the lack of clear and timely information about the process. We've also raised the issue as a matter of urgency with the Korean National Human Rights Commission."
Smith added that the embassy is still recommending British workers in Seoul and other areas to undergo testing since the directive says violators can be fined.
Canadian Ambassador to Korea Michael Danagher expressed similar concerns.
"A rapidly evolving issue and [the Canadian Embassy in Korea] has also been making similar representations to those of my UK colleague and other ambassadors," Danagher wrote on Twitter Thursday. "We are well aware of concerns in the [Canadian] community in Korea. I have made these points before."
The Seoul Metropolitan Government issued an administrative order on Wednesday to foreign workers in the city telling them to be tested for Covid-19 by the end of the month. The order applies to all foreign workers in Seoul with a business contract, which excludes students, tourists and diplomats. It includes foreigners working for schools and universities and local offices of international organizations and nonprofit organizations in Seoul, as long as they are incorporated under local laws, according to the city government.
Any foreign worker in Seoul who fails to get tested by the end of the month can be fined up to 2 million won ($1,770).
In some online communities of foreign nationals in Korea, a message reported to have been sent from the American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham) in Korea to its members was posted on Thursday, which read that Amcham has been sent a notice from the Korean government that the directives from Seoul and Gyeonggi "will be corrected."
The Seoul city government said it has not received any direction from the central government to correct its directive, as of press time Thursday.
The directive has been questioned by health experts as well.
“Why Seoul city, why would you take such a measure against basic human rights? Do you think testing is the answer to everything?” wrote Lee Jae-gap, a doctor specializing in infectious diseases at Hallym University Hospital, on Facebook on Wednesday. He uploaded a news article about Seoul’s administrative order with his posting.
“Those of us at the institute found this piece of news hard to believe,” wrote Manki Song, deputy director general of the International Vaccine Institute, in response to Lee’s posting. “I thought someone was spreading fake news. It’s unbelievable. And disappointing.”
In explaining why the policy was implemented, the city government’s general director for citizen's health Park Yoo-mi said in a press briefing Wednesday that there was “a cluster based in Yongsan last month, which involved a number of foreigners” and that the directive was meant to protect the health of the foreign population in Seoul.
In mid-February, around 30 infections were traced to a personal gathering in Yongsan District, central Seoul, which, according to the Yongsan District Office, were mostly foreigners from around a dozen different countries.
But since then, no other big clusters were associated with the foreign population in Seoul. According to the city government, foreigners accounted for 6.3 percent of infections in Seoul from January to March.
The order is leaving some foreign residents in the city nonplussed.
"Koreans were not mandated to be tested just because they work or live in an area [of an outbreak]," wrote Graham Nelson, political counselor of the British Embassy in Seoul, on his Twitter account on Thursday. "Coronavirus does not care about nationality. We should target the working environment where coronavirus spreads easily, not race."
The city government’s directive follows some by other local governments.
The Gyeonggi provincial government earlier in the month mandated all foreign workers in the province to be tested by March 22 after over 150 infections were traced to a cluster in Dongducheon, which began in a group of foreign workers. Previously, another city in the province, Namyangju, had a cluster of some 120 foreign workers tied to a plastics factory.
There have been reports that hundreds of foreign workers gathering to get tested in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, last Sunday resulted in total chaos.
“In Bucheon [in Gyeonggi] I was in line for 4 hours,” wrote a user in a Facebook group of foreign nationals in Korea on Thursday.
Some groups of foreign residents are filing petitions to institutions in Korea.
“For anyone who is as frustrated as I am about this clearly discriminatory mandate that is demanding foreigners to undergo Covid testing or pay a 2-3 M won fine, you can file a formal complaint here. I received this link from my colleague. Let's allow ourselves to be heard,” wrote one user in a Facebook group of expats in Korea, adding a link to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
A petition was written to the Blue House earlier in the week, calling the order in Gyeonggi discriminatory.
The Seoul city government’s directive also applies to companies in Korea hiring foreign workers. They are obligated to encourage their employees of foreign nationality to get tested before the end of the month, and they will be sent notices about their obligation, according to the city government.
Some institutions in Seoul that employ foreigners, including universities, are opposing the order.
“The Office of International Affairs at SNU [Seoul National University] is extremely concerned by this misguided and detrimental [policy of the city government] to SNU’s efforts in creating a more diverse community,” Ahn Duk-geun, dean of international affairs at SNU said in a statement Wednesday. “In response to this order, the office […] is working with other Seoul-based universities to come up with more effective and reasonable ways to address the current challenges of the Covid pandemic.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]