South Korea limited the spread of the coronavirus through aggressive contact tracing that relies heavily on data collection. But following a recent outbreak, many in the country’s LGBTQ community feel they’re being singled out.
South Korean health officials gain access to the cellphone GPS records, credit card transactions and transportation history of anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, and then they release much of that information to the public. Text message alerts urge everyone who might have crossed paths with the patient to immediately get tested.
In a series of notifications sent out earlier this month, authorities disclosed that a 29-year-old man who had contracted the disease had visited several bars and clubs in Itaewon, a Seoul neighborhood known for its nightlife.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control warned that up to 5,500 people could have been exposed to the coronavirus based on location data reportedly obtained from mobile carriers. A message sent by the Seoul Metropolitan Government stated testing was mandatory for anyone who visited a club in the area between April 29 and May 5. The city has ordered all bars and clubs across the capital to halt business until further notice.
The KCDC states that as of Friday, it has traced 207 of the country’s 11,142 COVID-19 cases to the Itaewon cluster.
Some emergency alerts identified the venues the man had visited. To Kim Yu-jin, these places stand out: They were all located in an LGBTQ-friendly corner of the neighborhood.
“I had mixed feelings when I heard about the outbreak,” said the 28-year-old who identifies as queer and runs a dance studio in another part of Seoul.
Most of her students are other sexual minorities, she said. Kim Yu-jin says it was irresponsible to go clubbing during a pandemic, but she says she is “worried that these people would be blamed for spreading COVID-19,” just as South Korea was bringing down new cases to single digits.
The Kookmin Ilbo, a conservative newspaper, was one of the first outlets to report that this outbreak was centered at a “gay bar,” which sparked anger toward the clubbers on social media and prompted calls to shut down these venues.
To Kim Yu-jin, the reaction was no surprise.
“Korean society already had a negative view of the LGBTQ community.”
“Korean society already had a negative view of the LGBTQ community,” she said.
The dance instructor adds that the media’s sensational reporting of the outbreak and the way the government singled out these clubbers has triggered a homophobic backlash.
Technology-based contact tracing is one of the ways South Korea says it mitigated the coronavirus’s impact. Now, the release of personal information that officials use to combat the pandemic is exposing a vulnerable population that would largely prefer to remain unseen.
“The way the government is conducting contact tracing is a concern for everyone. There needs to be a better balance between human rights and privacy in relation to fighting the disease.”
“The way the government is conducting contact tracing is a concern for everyone,” said Lee Jong-gul, director of the gay rights group Chingusai. “There needs to be a better balance between human rights and privacy in relation to fighting the disease.”
“Is it really helpful to release such excessive information,” he said.
South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare has attempted to ease these concerns.
Yoon Tae-ho, a ministry official, said during a May 11 briefing that quarantine authorities were reviewing the movements and tracing the Itaewon clubbers’ whereabouts to “minimize their contact with other people.” He urged the public to “refrain from any hatred” toward these people.
These reassurances from the government might not comfort many in South Korea’s LGBTQ community who are generally fearful of having their orientations revealed, some observers say.
This concern has been amplified as the coronavirus epidemic has unearthed deep-seated anxiety about sexual minorities, according to Todd Henry, who lectures in Korean Studies at the University of California San Diego.
“If their off-the-radar communities are being put under surveillance by COVID[-19], there is no space or room for LGBT[Q] people to move and navigate Korean society,” said Henry, who is editor of the book, "Queer Korea."
He explains that being outed can cost someone their job or strain relations with their family. And in South Korea’s conscript armed forces, homosexual relations between soldiers are punishable offenses. Henry says some human rights groups accused the country’s military of using dating apps as “surveillance tools” to track down gay soldiers.
Some advocates say Korea’s LGBTQ have little recourse against discrimination at the hands of employers or the government due to the absence of legal protection.
“South Korea has no anti-discrimination laws in place, partially because politicians don’t want sexual orientation to be included.”
“South Korea has no anti-discrimination laws in place, partially because politicians don’t want sexual orientation to be included” in any legislation, said Kim Eun-ah, an official at Amnesty International in Seoul.
She says that politically powerful conservative groups and lawmakers prevent the passage of such laws. And while South Korea’s progressive president, Moon Jae-in, says he supports equality, he opposes legalizing same-sex marriage.
Amnesty’s Kim Eun-ah says the recent spike in homophobia following the Itaewon outbreak coupled with privacy concerns regarding the coronavirus contact tracing could prevent some LGBTQ Koreans from being tested for the disease. Health authorities say COVID-19 screenings can be conducted anonymously.
Dance teacher Kim Yu-jin says she understands why other sexual minorities might still fear getting tested.
“The government claims it will protect our identities,” she said. “But if they can’t even protect our human rights, how can we trust them?”