[WHY] The unvaccinated in Korea and how they deal with the vaccine pass
“Even when I go to a restaurant by myself, people like the employees whisper around me after noticing that I am unvaccinated,” Oh told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It’s not like I did anything wrong, but it seems like people are treating me like a criminal.”
Oh did receive her first vaccine, but found out that she was pregnant one day before the appointment for her second jab. She chose not to get the second shot since she was advised by her doctor to not get it, concerning potential effects it could have on the baby.
Oh is one of approximately 2.3 million people in Korea, or 5.3 percent of the country’s population aged 18 or above, who are unvaccinated, according to the Health Ministry.
The unvaccinated adults have been essentially barred from public facilities including indoor gyms, bars and clubs from November, and then additionally banned from theaters and museums from mid-December, as Korea began expanding its vaccine pass system amid its worst and longest wave of the pandemic. They are allowed to eat alone at restaurants and cafes, but there have been reported cases of unvaccinated people being turned away at the door even if they're alone. The pass system for those aged 12 to 18 was waived until March 1, and recently halted indefinitely by a local court at certain venues.
The vaccine pass system requires full inoculation, proven with a QR code, or a negative PCR test. The PCR test is valid until midnight two days after receiving the result via text message.
Starting Jan. 10, the unvaccinated in Korea were also barred from large supermarkets and department stores — specifically, those larger than 3,000 square meters (32,300 square feet).
There has been increasing public backlash against the system recently, with around 1,000 doctors and other professionals filing a case to a local court to stop expanding the vaccine passes, which they said infringe on the "basic rights of the people."
The court announced its decision on Friday to place a temporary halt on the system across large-sized supermarkets and department stores, but only those in Seoul.
The Korea JoongAng Daily reached out to some of the unvaccinated in the country to get to the source and find out what is stopping them from getting vaccinated and hear about some of the challenges they’ve faced as a result.
Ko Yu-bin, a 25-year-old office worker in Pangyo, Gyeonggi, noticed her eyesight worsened after she was administered her first shot in early December.
“Everything is so blurry, and it never gets better,” Ko said. “I don't think I can get another vaccine, I’m so scared.”
Ko visited a hospital and took an M.R.I. but was told by the doctor that there is nothing wrong with her eyes. She then made an appointment at a bigger hospital to take a CT scan to see if anything is wrong with her nervous system.
“I can’t even be included in the vaccine pass exemption list because I don’t have a doctor’s note. But I can definitely feel that something went wrong after the first shot,” Ko said.
“I need to exercise regularly for my [general] health, but I can’t even go to the gym anymore,” Ko continued. “I don’t understand the government’s policy. People have to wear masks while exercising, yet the government has stricter regulations on gyms than it does on restaurants, where people eat and drink together [with their masks off].”
For 22-year-old Kim Ha-jin, who was diagnosed with pericarditis, or inflammation in the heart, following her second vaccine, the scariest part was not when the heart-attack-like pains would occur, but the unknown afterwards.
“Three months after the jab, I was still having pains in my chest and having trouble breathing from time to time,” Kim said. “But what scared me was that even the doctor didn’t have any answers.”
Kim was hospitalized for eight days following her second jab of the Pfizer vaccine on Sept. 10 last year, which, within six hours, left her with pains in her chest and trouble breathing.
But there wasn’t much that could be done for her as she lay there on the hospital bed.
“They monitored my conditions and gave me pain killers, but there wasn’t any treatment, and the doctors couldn’t explain to me why I was having this problem,” she said.
Discharged from the hospital, her chest pains and breathing problems continued for three months, but when she asked her doctor about them, the response she got was the same — the medical world doesn’t have enough data on these side-effects.
She obtained a government-issued waiver for any further booster shots, meaning she can present the waiver at restaurants and other venues in place of the vaccine pass after her vaccination status expires in March. Korea has ruled that vaccines will only be considered valid for six months.
“I just hope that the paper will work, because I am not planning on getting vaccinated for Covid-19 again after the experience I had,” she said.
“I didn’t get vaccinated due to my health condition, but once was kicked out of a restaurant just because I’m unvaccinated,” said Moon So-ri, a 30-year-old resident of Goyang, Gyeonggi.
Moon recently underwent heart surgery and has to take special medication for three months. She was told by the doctor to not get any vaccines while taking the drugs since, taken in tandem, she could develop unusual blood clots.
“Vaccination is a sort of free choice made by the individual, and people can always decide to not get vaccinated based on their own personal reasons,” Moon told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “The vaccine pass policy is no more than a one-sided notice made without enough communication with the public.”
“Due to the policy, the public perception [of vaccines] has become so negative.”
It’s the unknown that comes after a jab that’s been stopping Lim, a 32-year-old office worker in Seoul, from pulling up his arm sleeves. He and his immediate family members are not vaccinated.
“They say the chances of developing a bad side-effect from the vaccine is low, but it still happens and there is no guarantee that I won’t get them,” he said. “It’s scary because some of these side-effects don’t seem to have immediate treatments and there have been some severe side-effects, and even deaths, following Covid-19 vaccinations in Korea.”
Lim and his family — his younger brother and parents — had no qualms about vaccines until this pandemic. They would regularly get their seasonal flu shots.
But, opting to steer clear of Covid-19 vaccines, which were rolled out nationwide from February last year, Lim and his family had to make a list of adjustments to their lives, which grew as the system was expanded to include more venues.
Lim, an avid gym-goer, would rarely miss a day in the gym even during the pandemic. But that stopped from Nov. 1 as gyms became one of the first venues to require vaccine passes.
His father, an office worker, has resorted to eating alone during work hours since mid-December, but he has more than once been turned away at the door by owners who did not accept unvaccinated customers.
“It is concerning because the current system feels like the government is trying to imprison the unvaccinated in their homes,” Lim said.
“If some people say they don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s their right. The government has no right to oppose their decision,” said Dr. Ma Sang-hyuk from Fatima Hospital, who also served as the former vice president of the Korean Vaccine Society.
“The inoculation rate in Korea is very high compared to foreign countries, but we now know that vaccines are not the key solution to the pandemic,” Ma added. “The way the government has been pushing forward with the system has no regard for the welfare of the people.”
Korea boasts one of the higher vaccination rates in the world, with 84.1 percent of the population completely vaccinated as of Jan. 10, which is higher than other countries, such as Israel, New Zealand, France, Spain and Italy, and some states in the United States.
The world vaccination rate was 49.88 percent as of Jan. 10, according to the World Health Organization.
Officials of the Health Ministry have repeatedly emphasized that the vaccine pass system is designed to "protect the unvaccinated."
"The vaccine pass system is not designed to simply increase the vaccination rate," said Son Young-rae, a senior ministry official during a press briefing on Jan. 5. "It is to protect the unvaccinated people who are at a high risk of suffering from severe symptoms and even death [when infected], and the less severe patients we have, the less burden there will be on the medical system."
According to the ministry, 4 percent of the unvaccinated who were infected between April to December of 2021 developed severe conditions, while only 0.8 percent of the fully vaccinated did.
“The unvaccinated are not the main ones getting infected these days — among the Covid-19 patients aged 60 or over, 85 percent have been fully vaccinated,” he said. “But [the government is] going after the unvaccinated by enforcing the vaccine passes at even essential stores.”
The vaccine pass system in other highly vaccinated areas such as Israel, Italy, New Zealand and some parts of the United States does not include such essential stores such as grocery stores.
“The unvaccinated have their reasons,” he added. “The health authorities should hear them out on why they’re not vaccinated, be it for health issues or religious reasons, and try to adjust the system so they are not barred from the basic necessities of life.”
People who have had serious reactions to shots, such as anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, and could not complete the vaccine course or get a third booster shot, have to present a note from a local health center to prove they have a valid reason for not getting their shots.
A doctor’s note from a private clinic is not acceptable, and there is no waiver for pregnancies, according to the Health Ministry.
Since vaccinations in the country started in February 2021, a total of 426,572 people have reported their adverse reactions to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), a government authority on Covid-19, as of Jan. 8.
Of these, 15,884, or 3.7 percent of the reported reactions, were severe cases including anaphylaxis, according to the agency.
On Jan. 4, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled that private educational facilities, such as hagwon (cram schools), reading rooms and study cafes, should be temporarily excluded from the list of establishments requiring a vaccine pass for entry — effective immediately.
“In order to implement a policy that would be unfavorable to a certain group of society, in this case the unvaccinated, there needs to be a rational reasoning behind it,” the Seoul Administrative Court said in a statement. “As we are seeing a hike in breakthrough cases, we cannot conclude at this point that the unvaccinated [should be barred from these facilities because they] could be the main source of future Covid-19 cases.”
However, Prof. Jung Jae-hun, from the Gachon University College of Medicine, said the court’s ruling was an unwise and inconsiderate decision, underestimating the efficacy of the vaccines and the vaccine pass policy.
“The vaccine pass policy is an inevitable and critical regulation during the pandemic,” Jung said. “It is an additional protective measure in the country’s social distancing guidelines.”
The Seoul Administrative Court on Friday also issued a temporary halt to the system at supermarkets and department stores, but only the large-sized ones in Seoul. The halt applied only to those in the capital because the court deemed the legitimate respondent in the case filed by the 1,023 doctors and other professionals was the Seoul city government.
Korea has been in its fourth and largest wave of the pandemic since mid-July. Daily cases, which rarely surpassed 2,000 before mid-July, broke into the 7,000s last month, with the number of critically ill patients hovering around 1,000 for weeks, threatening to fully saturate the intensive care unit hospital beds nationwide. Daily cases have started to dip from late December, recording 3,097 on Jan. 10.
BY SARAH CHEA, ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]