Vaccines from abroad don't cut it in Korea

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Vaccines from abroad don't cut it in Korea

Simon Smith, British ambassador to Seoul, posted a video message on the British Embassy’s Twitter account urging the Korean government to accept vaccination records of foreigners in Korea who are not eligible for quarantine exemptions [BRITISH EMBASSY SEOUL]

Simon Smith, British ambassador to Seoul, posted a video message on the British Embassy’s Twitter account urging the Korean government to accept vaccination records of foreigners in Korea who are not eligible for quarantine exemptions [BRITISH EMBASSY SEOUL]

 
"I went to a movie theater with my friend last week," says Franziska, a 25-year-old German studying in Korea, "but was stopped at the door because the Korean system says I am not vaccinated."
 
Franziska is inoculated. She received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Switzerland in May, a few weeks before returning to Korea for the fall semester.  
 
“Although I have been fully vaccinated, I didn't want to argue with the theater staff, so my friend and I just exchanged our tickets for another auditorium [for the unvaccinated]. It was a very unpleasant experience.”  
 
Franziska ran up against a giant glitch in the Korean Covid response. So far, the Korean system only recognizes people inoculated here.
 
The glitch makes life difficult for a relatively small group of people like Franziska who got jabs abroad but reside here. It's going to be an even bigger problem as Korea tries to open its borders again and get back to normal -- without being able to accept foreign inoculation records.  
 
Franziska made the effort to get her vaccine record registered at her local health center in Mapo District, western Seoul. It didn't work.
 
Flummoxed, she called another health center in Yongsan District, central Seoul, but was given the same reply: If you are a foreign national in Korea who was vaccinated overseas, your vaccine records cannot be registered with the Korean health system.  
 
There is one way out for people in Franziska's situation: quarantine exemptions. These are given to foreigners entering Korea and allows them to skip the 10-day quarantine process that other visitors must endure. The exemption is a requirement to get an overseas vaccination registered in the Korean health system.  
 
Quarantine exemptions are being issued in very limited circumstances, such as urgent business trips, humanitarian missions, or if the visitor has immediate family residing in Korea.  
 
This policy by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) has left many fully inoculated expats in Korea nonplussed and exasperated -- and excluded from some public facilities like movie theaters and gyms.   
 
“Many foreigners in Korea like myself who have been vaccinated outside this country are placed in a very inconvenient and frustrating position where we cannot enjoy the incentives for the vaccinated because the government does not recognize our overseas vaccination records,” says Theo Cheng, 32, a Canadian expat who was transferred to Korea two months ago.
 
“My current options are to either wait until the KDCA changes the policy or just get vaccinated again in Korea, though I don’t know if it is even medically safe to get four jabs within a few months’ span," he says. "I also wouldn’t want to take a vaccine that can be used on someone else who needs it more than me.”
 
Since Nov. 1, the government has lifted most restrictions for the inoculated and rolled out a vaccine pass system.  
 
Consequently, those who are unvaccinated in Korea are ineligible to bypass restrictions and can be denied admission to gyms, movie theaters, nightclubs, noraebang (singing rooms) and public bathhouses.
 
The Human Rights Counseling Coordination Center of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has assigned an investigator to determine whether the government is violating the human rights of foreign nationals in Korea who are without quarantine exemption, according to the center’s public relations department Friday.  
 
Embassies in Korea have raised formal complaints.  
 
“We have been in touch with the Korean authorities to ask them to ensure that the vaccine pass arrangements do not discriminate against foreign nationals in Korea,” said Simon Smith, British ambassador to Korea in a video message posted on the British Embassy’s Twitter account on Friday.  
 
“We’ve said that if evidence produced by a Korean national of an overseas vaccination is good enough for that vaccination to be registered for the vaccine pass, the same evidence should be good enough to register the overseas vaccinations of foreign nationals too.”
 
While Korea does not recognize overseas vaccination records for foreign nationals, it does accept them for Korean nationals who received jabs outside the country.  
 
Korean nationals who are vaccinated abroad can visit their local health center and put their vaccine records from abroad into the Korean health system.  
 
The same overseas vaccine certificates are rejected in Korea when they are in the hands of a foreign national.  
 
“The disparity in the treatment of Korean nationals vaccinated overseas and foreign nationals in the same position made me feel angry and discriminated against,” says Franziska.
 
“We have the same documents as Korean citizens, so it does not make sense that there is a distinction based on nationality.”  
 
A number of local health centers in Korea mistakenly registered some overseas vaccination records of foreign nationals without quarantine exemptions.  
 
“My local health center didn’t ask for my quarantine exemption papers, and I was able to register my Pfizer jabs that I received in Paris,” says a 32-year-old tech company worker from France who asked not to be named.    
 
“The fact that I was able to register my vaccine records indicates that Korea does not lack a system or the technical ability to upload foreigners’ vaccine records onto their system.”  
 
Heather Bryson, a 36-year-old U.S. national in Korea says that although she feels like she may be cheating a bit, she wants her vaccine records registered in the Korean system if some centers are doing it.  
 
“I have two small children at home, so I am unable to easily take trips out to try different health centers to get my vaccination records accepted,” Bryson says.
 
“But I am still going to try one more on Monday since there is one other health center that I haven’t tried yet near my house.”  
 
Bryson got vaccinated in July while she was visiting her family in the United States, thinking it was the responsible thing to do at the time because Korea had a vaccine supply shortage. In retrospect, she said she regrets that decision.  
 
“Especially because I have children who are unvaccinated, it is very complicated to visit a place with friends who also have young unvaccinated kids because the current rules allow up to four unvaccinated people in cafes and restaurants,” says Bryson.  
 
“I want to go out in confidence without worrying if I will be allowed into places.”
 
Some say they feel trapped in Korea because they cannot freely travel out of the country and return without going into quarantine if their vaccine records are not registered in Korea.  
 
“My grandmother is in the hospital back in Germany, and if she passes away, I won't be able to attend the funeral because I cannot afford to quarantine again for 10 days when I come back to Korea from Germany,” says Franziska.  
 
“It’s also Christmas soon, but some of us will not be able to visit our families because we cannot afford to take time off from work or school to quarantine.”
 
The 10-day self-quarantine is mandatory for those who are not fully vaccinated according to the Korean health system.
 
Koreans and foreign nationals who have their two vaccine records registered in the Korean health system can skip the quarantine requirement upon re-entry to the country.  
 
The KDCA said it has plans to recognize more overseas vaccinations for foreign nationals in the future.  
 
“For those foreign nationals who have entered Korea without quarantine exemptions, the KDCA is currently hammering out ways to safely open up the country to everybody in Korea,” says Choi Seung-ho, officer of crisis communication team at the KDCA.  
 
“We will continue to expand vaccine verification program in stages.”  
 
To the claims that the KDCA was discriminating against foreigners in Korea, the official says, “That was not the purpose of the policy.” 
 

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]
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