Are 'coronavirus criminals' worth chasing down?
The pandemic brought death, illness, economic dislocation and an entirely new class of "coronavirus criminals," people caught violating quarantine or social distancing restrictions.
The cases are still piled up, and police don't know what to do with them.
From January 2020, when Korea's first Covid-19 case was reported, through March, 28,011 people were charged with violating the Infectious Disease Prevention Act. By charge, 24,696 were accused of violating the business curfew or restrictions on the number of people who could gather, 2,474 of breaking quarantine, 453 for other violations, and 388 for interfering with epidemiological investigations.
Some have been disposed of — with a higher percentage of guilty verdicts than usual — and some are still working their way through the system.
"I don't have time to investigate real crimes," a police officer working in a precinct in Seoul said. "We can't say one crime is worse than another but there are so many investigations related to the Infectious Disease Prevention Act that I feel like I will be stuck with them for a while."
Among police, there are constant complaints of overwork.
“There is already a shortage of investigative labor,” said a police officer who asked not to be named, "and I think to myself, ‘Should we investigate every single case?’"
There are concerns within the police that the investigations are obsessed with the letter of the law rather than guiding the public toward better behavior. Some police officers suffer from feelings of guilt because the alleged crimes they are investigating are really sad stories, or meaningless violations.
“Business owners were arrested for keeping their stores open just to survive, or students who were caught studying overtime at cafes,” said a police officer. “Many of these people have never even been to a police station before, and now they're becoming criminals. Even as I am investigating these cases, I think to myself, ‘Is this right?’”
“Honestly, these are not serious crimes,” said another police officer. “We should be focusing on the prevention of the spread of the virus, not trying to beat down those who were simply trying to make a living.”
Some of the people being investigated are complaining of injustice.
“During the pandemic, I abided by all the social distancing rules until I couldn’t pay my rent,” said a business owner in his 50s, who was arrested for violating social distancing measures in March. “I opened my business only when I feared I would die if I continued to abide by the rules.
“It’s not like Covid-19 will go away by punishing us business owners,” he continued, "so I want to ask, 'What comes from taking us in?'"
Some academics say the problem is that there wasn't time for a real social consensus before the enforcement of social distancing measures. “In principle, punishment should be minimized,” said Lee Hoon, a professor of police administration at Chosun University. “They should only investigate cases that have malignant intent or are outside the realm of common sense.”
“During the Covid-19 crisis, government policies were repressive and traded public safety for people’s freedom,” said Yoon Sang-cheol, a professor of sociology at Hanshin University. “In such a conflict, there has to be a sufficient social consensus and persuasion process.”
There are also views that an amnesty should be considered for those who violated the Infectious Disease Prevention Act because they had to make a living.
“As the Covid-19 crisis has settled into an endemic disease situation, the new government should grant special amnesties to those who violated the Infectious Disease Prevention Act,” said Oh Kyung-sik, a professor of law at Wonju University. “The president sometimes grants special pardons for criminal offenders. That is not impossible for the coronavirus criminals.”
BY CHAE HYE-SEON [email@example.com]