Why Seoul and Gyeonggi’s COVID-19 Order is a Big Deal

Why Seoul and Gyeonggi’s COVID-19 Order is a Big Deal

Really quickly. There were some COVID-19 clusters related to factories with overcrowded dorms that happened to have a lot of migrant workers. Frustrated that despite the COVID number not going down in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, and not being able to legally or politically do much about the clusters occurring at churches, saunas, and multi-purpose businesses, the leaders decided to go after the foreign community instead.

Both municipalities have ordered every single foreign worker to get COVID-19 tests by the end of March.

What is wrong with that?

Isn’t that good for public health?

Are you one of those anti-COVID-19 conspiracy theorizing anti-maskters?

Sorry to disappoint. No, I’m not. I’m planning to get tested. I’ve gotten tested before. Getting the test itself isn’t the big deal.

Let me repeat that.

Getting the test itself isn’t the big deal.

Most all of the foreigners I’ve seen comments from have no problem with getting tested. They’re not protesting that.

It’s the thinking behind this order that is the big deal. Not only is it illogical to test an entire demographic based on a few clusters, it’s damaging. It’s damaging to said demographic, and it’s damaging to the community’s health. I mentioned in a Reuters article that following this logic, every Christian in Seoul and Gyeonggi should be tested because a significant amount of clusters have occurred in Christian churches.

But that makes no sense, I agree.

I was researching other countries or cities who have done a blanket order like this, and I’ve only found Malaysia. No democracy in the OECD has done this except South Korea. Yet Malaysia focused on factories and boarding conditions of workers. They put the business owners under the microscopes. In Gyeonggi Province, they placed the burden on the workers themselves, threatening to fine them up to 3 million won for not complying.

Both Seoul and Gyeonggi have acted magnanimous that they were going to look the other way from undocumented immigrant workers. It would be safe for them to get checked without any trouble from Immigration. Okay… good?

Question: If an immigrant is undocumented, and they don’t take the test, how would the authorities know?

Seoul is at least making business owners somewhat responsible in having them join their foreign worker(s) in the long lines at the overcapacity testing centers. Call it, Diet Xenophobia.

Not for public health

After getting the test, there have been mixed messages on what to do until people wait on their results. Until now, they’ve all have had to isolate in their apartments. We had to do that a few months ago when my whole family was tested. We even isolated in separate rooms. I don’t know how they’re going to do this in those factory dorms. Yet some have said that the testers told them they didn’t need to quarantine themselves. They could go out and infect more of the public unbeknownst until they receive their results.

Which proves even more that this is not for public health. This is politics. This is the worst kind of good ol’ boy populist xenophobia. This is painting every single foreigner from different countries, backgrounds, and industries as one faceless monolith. It’s as if in the government’s imagination all of us foreigners crowd together in the same big opium den in our off hours.

(I would not be surprised if I’m not far off in the minds of some.)

But you’re a white middle class expat. You’ve never cared about migrants until it affected you.

Yes, seriously. I’ve seen some wanna-be Tucker Carlsons say this on Twitter. Let me repeat what I said before. Everyone?

Getting the test itself isn’t the big deal.

Gyeonggi says it’s inspecting dorms, but really. What actions are they taking? Have they tested the Korean workers sharing those dorms or just the foreigners? Are they fining any factories for violating COVID-19 rules? We haven’t heard anything of that. What is the government doing to improve the living conditions of these valuable people who are crucial to the Korean economy?

History has shown time and time again that democracies sprout and people demand their rights when they have grown a middle class. This was true for Europe. This was true in America. This was true in South Korea. Because, yeah, when a responsible person gets some privilege, they use that privilege to demand fairness for everyone. I won’t lose my job or my visa status for speaking up. Just because someone more vulnerable than me is quiet doesn’t mean they’re okay with everything. Maybe they are. But when I see something that is morally bereft, I’m abusing what little privilege I have by ignoring it.

So really? Why is this a big deal?

In a few weeks, this all will blow over. We’ll forget this and move on to the next squirrel. Because why?

Getting the test itself isn’t the big deal.

The big deal is that this action has reinforced the Korean public’s perception of all non-Koreans as dirty and diseased.

Take in this quote from a Korean clothing store owner in Ansan:

“Since there are a lot of foreigners here, every time a foreigner comes in, it would worry me,” said Hwang Mi-sun, a clothes shop owner. “Now that they are filtering out everyone, it gives me a sense of assurance.” [source]

Yes. We’re being filtered to (falsely) put Koreans’ minds at ease. We’re being cleaned up and made presentable because Koreans entering her store don’t carry COVID-19. Foreigners do.

Before the pandemic reached South Korea and soon after, stores and restaurants were focused on banning foreigners from entry. Yet the first people to bring COVID-19 to South Korea were Koreans. Back then up until now Koreans have been the highest carriers of COVID-19 in Korea. Even when taken as a percentage of the population, yes, the percentages of Koreans in South Korea carrying COVID-19 have been higher than the percentages of foreigners compared to the foreign population as a whole.

In May 2020, there was an outbreak in Itaewon at a gay club mostly frequented by Korean nationals. The media jumped at the chance to make COVID-19 a moral issue by implying that homosexuals were causing the outbreaks. And the public associated foreigners with the outbreak as well, since it was Itaewon–EVEN THOUGH the outbreak originated from a young Korean worker visiting the neighborhood from outside. I’ve had foreign friends on the subway being blasted by strangers for spreading the virus–even as far away as Busan.

This is why this is dangerous for public health. By focusing on all foreigners as the disease carriers, the Korean public will think they’re safe and will be less careful.

There is a precedent for this.

1988 Olympics and the foreigner AIDS scare

In 1987, a 65-year-old man had contracted the HIV virus overseas and became the first person in South Korea to die from AIDS.

Unfortunately, South Korea reacted the same way many other countries did and made it a disease associated with homosexuality and prostitution. Being diseased was a sign that one was morally inferior. It was a disease from The Other.

The newspapers were full of opinion pieces blasting Americans for their decadent sex culture and then brought up the fear of them bring it to Korea. The Korean public was warned to be vigilant against the many foreign tourists and American soldiers who could infect their pure innocent morally upstanding people with this dreadful disease. Itaewon businesses suffered because Koreans were scared to get AIDS from foreigners.

The phenomena is mainly attributable to the fact that Koreans believe that the fatal disease may be transmitted by foreigners and avoid spending their leisure time there.

The Korea Times, March 12, 1987 (via Gusts of Popular Feeling)

The government enacted laws in haste, and proposed an infamous law to deport any foreigners infected with HIV. That part didn’t go through because there was the potential problem that they’d have to expel the occasional American soldier, who was protected under SOFA agreements.

Protests were held, accusing American soldiers of spreading AIDS. Protesters also wanted action to be taken against the coming influx of foreigners arriving to Korea for the 1988 Olympics. There were plans to offer tests to tourists entering from Gimpo Airport (this was before there was an Incheon Airport).

As Matt from Gusts of Popular Feeling concluded: “AIDS became the perfect metaphor for foreign moral, sexual, and cultural contamination.”

Testing Foreign English teachers for HIV/AIDS

This continued with the Anti-English Spectrum crusade of the mid 2000s.

A group of (mostly) men didn’t like the idea of Korean women dating foreigners, so they formed an internet cafe called “Anti-English Spectrum” and actively put stories in the media about “undesirable” foreign English teachers taking advantage of Korean women and thusly, spreading AIDS.

It was from this that the Korean government enacted its policy to require HIV/AIDS tests for all E-2 visa English teachers. This was not a requirement for Korean English teachers–only the foreigners. It took a fight with the U.N. Human Rights Council from English teacher Lisa Griffin and attorney Benjamin Wagner to finally get that removed as a requirement.

And it took nearly a DECADE!

In the meantime, the media would go through predictable waves of xenoscare that foreigners were spreading sexual deviancy and disease in Korea.

2009 H1N1 Swine Flu

In 2009, the H1N1 Swine Flu was spreading around the world. When it started entering Korea, the government quarantined a cluster outbreak at an ESL school by putting foreigners in dormitories while letting Korean nationals isolate in their homes.

We did a podcast where we talked via Skype to some of these foreigners after they left quarantine. Even fellow Korean teachers in the same orientation event were allowed to go home while the foreigners were rounded up at 4 a.m. and segregated from the general populace in a locked down facility.

Under Quarantine | SeoulPodcast 57 (June 3, 2009)

The implication from this–if you need that bonk-bonk on the head point–was that foreigners were stereotyped as dirty disease carriers while Koreans were assumed to be safe, clean, and pure.

Each of these discriminatory actions Korea took against foreigners were roundly criticized and roundly forgotten. In the meantime, the government and the media label the foreigners contributing to the economy as diseased. Traditionally, disease has been attached to moral inferiority.


Awful things are happening in the world right now. Disgusting race-baited violence and killings have been committed by scumbag individuals against Koreans and others in the Asian communities in America and Europe. Irresponsible Republican politicians make it worse by referring to the “China Disease” (Koreans have been using that epithet too, TBH).

There is no reason why we have to choose to condemn some heinous acts over others. Morally sane people should condemn the violent actions of these individuals and also condemn the systematic scapegoating of foreigners by governments. Some try to minimize the actions of Korean governments by pointing out the shitty racist shit occurring in America.

Yes. And…

Does that let the Korean government off the hook?

Please tell me you’re not that binary.

Seoul and Gyeonggi Province will carry out their orders–hamhandedly–to test their ENTIRE foreign populations because it’s important to look like you’re doing something rather than actually doing something–what I call “Image uber Alles.”

It is up to us to remind them that this is wrong, and they need to stop doing this. They need to stop labeling non-Koreans as diseased and dirty. Most of these people in these government and media institutions are well-meaning and good people. They just need feedback that this isn’t something a modern wealthy democracy does.

I’d read this book about research on driving behaviors, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). One thing I noted was that bad drivers got better only when other drivers regularly honked their horns. They were only made aware that they were driving badly when they received feedback.

Governments need feedback too.

South Korean Elections: North Korean Defector Wins a Seat

South Korean Elections: North Korean Defector Wins a Seat

South Korea was the first country to hold a major election since the COVID-19 crisis began. A record 66% turnout voted, the highest since 1992.

The progressive Democratic Party of Korea won a landslide victory occupying 180 out of 300 seats in parliament. This is the first time this has happened since the late 1980s.

Election Chart

Democratic Party 163
United Future Party 84
Justice Party 1
Independent 5

The conservative United Future Party did get a notable win in Gangnam with Thae Gu-Min, the first time EVER that a North Korean defector has won a government seat in South Korea. 

Another conservative win was in Busan with ex-mayor Seo Byung-soo, who is known for creating the infamous blacklist of thousands of people in the cultural sector during the Park Geun-hye administration. 

This will be an interesting time now that President Moon has a definite mandate. His party has won a landslide victory among record voter turnout. 

This was the first time the mixed representation system was tried. Its intent was to diversify the number of parties in the National Assembly. Instead, the two major parties rigged the system by creating fake satellite astroturf parties, which didn’t win seats.

The first agenda item likely will be budget allocation in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

One item I hope will finally get passed will be an anti-discrimination law that religious conservatives have blocked.