Celebs wade into the Covid-19 vaccine war
As the Korean entertainment industry is returning to the offline stage under the government’s relaxed "With Corona” policies, a heated debate surrounding celebrities’ vaccination status is under way.
Rowoon of boy band SF9 has been facing criticism since an online meet-and-greet on Thursday, during which he was asked about his vaccination status and answered that he had not been vaccinated against Covid-19. The revelation came as a surprise to many fans, considering that 79.87 percent of Koreans have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.
“You have to rest for a few days after getting vaccinated, and I haven’t had the time for that,” he said. “I had made a reservation [to get vaccinated], but I couldn’t make it due to my filming schedule for [the KBS series] ‘The King’s Affection.’ Instead, I undergo a PCR test once every two days.”
Rowoon’s schedule has indeed been full in recent months; he plays a lead role in the currently-airing “The King’s Affection” and had been preparing for the release of SF9’s new EP “Rumination” which dropped on Nov. 22. Still, many questioned how Rowoon has failed to find any spare time for months.
Controversy escalated the following day as he appeared on KBS’s “Music Bank” to perform as part of SF9, and KBS announced that he would host next month’s “KBS Song Festival,” the channel’s annual end-of-year music show. Online commenters expressed concerns about whether it would be safe for Rowoon to host a largescale show with numerous artists on site. Some condemned that Rowoon was selfish to put his costars in danger, while some put blame on SF9’s management FNC Entertainment for not prioritizing Rowoon’s inoculation over his schedule.
Due to strong criticism, FNC promptly issued a statement.
“Rowoon was scheduled for vaccination but was inevitably unable to get vaccinated because the filming schedule for ‘The King’s Affection’ could not be changed,” the statement read. “We are currently rescheduling and Rowoon will be vaccinated soon.”
“We should take into account the characteristic of K-pop idol groups; just by the number of members, they’re already a gathering,” Kim Yoon, a professor of health policy and management at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“That increases the risk of mass infections within an idol group, then among the production staff and audience members who are present at its performances. Singing and dancing are activities that produce a lot of droplets, and celebrities are bound to be in close contact with many people as part of their schedules. An unvaccinated individual in the mix further increases the possibility of a mass outbreak.”
This is not the boy band’s first time facing backlash regarding vaccinations against Covid-19. In September, SF9’s leader Youngbin said during a livestream on social media, “I didn’t get vaccinated because I heard it’s painful. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll catch the coronavirus even if I don’t get vaccinated.”
His throwaway comment quickly came under fire and Youngbin apologized the next day.
Singer Im Chang-jung was also criticized when he caught Covid-19 in early November and it was revealed that he had not been vaccinated due to his busy schedule. The day before Im tested positive, he had performed at actor Lee Ji-hoon’s wedding which many other celebrities attended. The wedding guests had to halt their activities and anxiously await their test results after Im tested positive. Im apologized as soon as he recovered.
However, the swift statements and apologies do not necessarily mean that the public reaction is overwhelmingly negative, and the high inoculation rate does not mean Korean society has reached a consensus on vaccines either.
Many Koreans — whether fans or not — believe vaccinations are a matter of personal choice and defend the unvaccinated celebrities’ decisions, especially after hearing reports of side effects related to vaccinations. Citing side effects and instances of death allegedly caused after the administration of vaccines, part of the public claims that an individual has the right to refuse vaccination if they view it to be unnecessary or dangerous.
“Vaccines are not mandatory, so why are unvaccinated people heavily criticized?” asks the top comment under an article about Rowoon, posted on Nate, one of Korea's biggest web portals. “There are many people around me who didn’t get vaccinated because they’re afraid of the side effects.”
“It’s Rowoon’s decision to make,” reads the second-most-liked comment on the same article. “People have died or are suffering from severe side effects after getting the jab. Vaccinations shouldn’t be forced.”
Despite some people's distrust of the vaccination, Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University, says it is the safest choice for everyone as of now.
“Yes, getting vaccinated is a personal choice, but I strongly suggest it’s a good choice to make for your health and the health of those around you,” Jung said.
“A person’s vaccination status should not lead to restrictions on activities related to their job. But in the long run, getting vaccinated is the safest decision, especially for celebrities who are exposed to so many staff and audience members, which increases the danger of them being infected or infecting others. It’s best to get the jab and protect themselves and the people around them.”
As daily case numbers are surging after pandemic measures have been eased, the majority of vaccinated Koreans are growing wary of the unvaccinated. On the other hand, those who have chosen to remain unvaccinated are expressing disdain that numerous restrictions are being imposed on their everyday lives. Since “With Corona” policies began, the government has implemented a “vaccine pass” system which requires individuals above 18 to present their vaccination status for a wide range of activities, from attending gatherings of over four people to entering various public places such as gyms.
Vaccine passes can be replaced with negative PCR test results issued in the past 48 hours, but the process of getting those results can be tedious, leading unvaccinated people to claim they are being discriminated against for their decisions.
Several celebrities, who themselves got the jab, have shared their opinions on the vaccine. One of them is singer Sung Si-kyung who spoke out during a YouTube livestream in September and was met with both criticism and support.
“I don’t think we should force other people to sacrifice for the public good,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to question how the vaccine was made and what effects or side effects it has, or to be doubtful and worried about the vaccine.”
In early November, actor Kang Ye-bin wrote on her Instagram that she was fully vaccinated but also added that she believes getting the vaccine is a personal choice.
“The [side effects of the] first dose were really severe, so I was terrified to get the second dose. I had no choice but to get it, because [without being fully inoculated] I would face many limitations in my activities. I understand that people who don’t get vaccinated must have their own reasons and circumstances.”
Professor Kim says that the vaccination controversy is not limited to certain celebrities, but sheds light on the fact that Korean society has been lacking a thorough discussion on vaccine mandates in general.
“We shouldn’t stop at condemning certain stars, but discuss the wider context: The tension between the vaccinated and unvaccinated population,” he said. “Korea currently has no mandate regarding vaccines, even for medical workers, and a discussion is long overdue. I personally believe that Korea should gradually start mandating vaccinations, but celebrities aren’t the ones who should be on the forefront. We should start from medical workers and elderly care workers, then proceed to weigh each profession’s level of risk to decide.”
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]