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Life in South Korea, as is the case around the globe, has been upended by COVID-19. Each day begins with a face mask and hand sanitizer. Friday nights are no longer spent hanging out at crowded bars with friends and colleagues. Public announcements on the street and on public transportation remind us every few minutes to keep six feet apart from each other.
But over the past months, the country has emerged as a global role model for how to handle the pandemic. Since dealing with an outbreak tied to the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus in February, the South Korean government has won praise for implementing testing and contact tracing programs on a national scale. These efforts are, by any standard, impressive: Throughout the day, I get at least a dozen text messages from the government alerting me to newly confirmed cases nearby. These messages usually include links to a website detailing past movements of the newly-infected. Health authorities use data from credit cards and cell phone usage — as well as patients’ own testimony — to gather this information.
This type of tracing might be considered an invasion of privacy in some countries. But South Koreans are quite comfortable giving out their personal information and even using personal QR codes when visiting cafes or restaurants. Most of the state-level measures on virus containment were “recommendations,” not orders — but people still voluntarily complied. The social cohesion exhibited in South Korea reveals a population that prioritizes communal safety over individual freedom in times of emergency.
The results speak for themselves. As of early October, just over 400 people in South Korea had died from the virus — a figure roughly half that of a typical day in the United States.
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But South Korea’s success at containing the coronavirus belies a polarized society still afflicted with widespread inequality.
For the country’s wealthy, the COVID-induced economic shutdown barely registered as a blip: The richest 20 percent in South Korea earned more this spring than they had during the same period in 2019, and purchases for luxury vehicles spiked. Meanwhile, part-time workers and small business owners increasingly suffered as the government closed down high-risk places like restaurants and karaoke parlors. Government assistance to the poor helped cushion some of these losses, but rampant inequality has remained. In one example reported by national news, a delivery driver who did not have the luxury to stay home died of overwork.
COVID-19 cases that allegedly started from racial or religious minorities sparked violent online reprisals and offline discrimination. Following the Shincheonji outbreak in late winter, angry South Koreans used KakaoTalk, a messenger app, to harass the religious group’s adherents and release their personal information to the public. Following the initial reports of the virus’ spread from China, Chinese residents in Seoul reported being afraid to speak Mandarin in the city due to ethnic discrimination from Koreans. And, as in the U.S., many South Koreans fell for irrational messages that contradicted the scientific consensus. In August, an anti-government protest led by an outspoken religious leader who said “COVID-19 is not contracted outdoors” sparked a mass outbreak. The religious figure, who contracted the virus himself, was touted as a “martyr” in the ultra-right-wing communities after alleging that his infection resulted from North Korean bioterrorism.
South Korea should be proud of its success in handling the pandemic. But it should also not ignore the decades-old problems that surfaced in the past year, including residual sympathy for authoritarianism, the gap between the haves and have-nots, and ethnic discrimination. In addition, the much-praised contact tracing technology implemented to halt the spread of COVID could, in the wrong hands, be used as a tool for targeting political opponents and weakening democracy.
As a South Korean citizen, I hope the light and shade we’ve seen during COVID-19 might make us a more mature democracy: high-functioning, but also inclusive and humane.