South Koreans give up privacy to contain COVID-19, keeping society open

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, governments of different countries are being graded for their responses to the crisis by a world that is watching. The South Korean government has been often held up as an example as one of the more effective responders to the pandemic.

There is a prescience for their swift response to the coronavirus. South Korea had been a hot bed for the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2012. From that experience, South Korea had built an infrastructure ready to deal with another pandemic.

The Korean biotech companies, using a supercomputer, made testing kits in three weeks rather than in months by manual methods once the news of the virus come out of China. South Korea was able to roll out free testing for its citizen and contain the pandemic enough that the government never issued a “stay-at-home” mandate. Of course, the country’s  healthcare single payer system had also made the mass deployment of the tests possible, unlike the multi-insurer system in the US. The fast and comprehensive testing by the Koreans is now what scientists and healthcare officials are advocating in other countries in order for them to reopen their societies.

However, there is another element of South Korea’s approach that is less known at this time. It involves extensive public contact tracing in the form of a nationwide health alert system. These “safety guidance texts” are sent to the people’s mobile phones much like an Amber alert in the US. It notifies everyone when someone is tested positive and traces the movements of these people.

This has led to some embarrassing situations. As South Korean media pored over some of the people’s movements, citizens looked on with a mixture of horror and fascination as the infected people’s private lives were laid bare, leading to various speculations of potential affairs, fraudulent activities, and so forth.

In one example, a young female bartender at an Itaewon bar tested positive. Her movements were traced and publicized in a well-intentioned effort to alert anyone who had been in contact with her or visited that bar. But by tracing her movements, people could speculate about various men that she had visited.

This type of an alerting system was implemented because during the MERS crisis, all the information about infected people were kept a secret by the government, which led to extensive mistruth of the government. People wanted access to information on who might be infectious. In an effort to gain the public truth this time around, the information is being shared in great detail.

The result as been one of exemplary containment of the COVID-19 virus in comparison to other countries. But is this kind of exposure of infected people’s private information a price that other countries and their citizens willing to pay? I’d love your comments.

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