South Korea experienced a considerable uptick in cases of the Chinese coronavirus this weekend linked to the re-opening of the nightclub district in the capital of Seoul, the majority of which are believed to have come from establishments catering to the LGBT community.
The country has won widespread praise for its effective efforts in containing the outbreak, mainly through the use of a system known as “track and trace.” Officials from the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 97 new cases as of Monday morning, the majority of which were linked to nightclubs in the gay district of Itaewon.
The spike in cases led the government to postpone the re-opening of schools by at least one week, as children were originally scheduled to return to classes from Monday. Deputy Education Minister Park Baeg-beom described the delay as “inevitable” in the interests of safety, with the government now warning citizens about the likelihood of a second wave of infections.
“We need to quickly find patients to stem community transmission,” said KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong at a press briefing on Monday, warning that all people who visited the Itaewon clubs over the past three weeks should be tested regardless of whether they are symptomatic.
Jeong added that the virus has so far not spread beyond the contacts of the first patient, identified as a 29-year-old man who visited five clubs on the night of May 1.
“We should stop the virus from reaching a high-risk group and causing them serious damage,” she said. “I heard some people are reluctant to get tested for fear of being criticized. We will try hard to make sure everyone receives a test without feeling uncomfortable or prejudiced against.”
The mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, has warned that although people will be granted anonymity, they will face heavy fines if they fail to get tested.
According to The Guardian, many people are fearful of getting tested because of the possible anti-LGBT backlash they might receive. Despite its high levels of freedom and progressive leadership, the paper claims that South Korea has a “high level of deeply entrenched homophobic attitudes,” and those caught up in the recent wave of infections have faced hostility online and across the country’s media.
“I admit it was a huge mistake to visit the gay district when the corona situation was not fully over,” Lee Youngwu, a gay man in his 30s, told the British daily. “But visiting the area is the only time when I can be myself and hang out with others similar to me. During the week, I have to pretend to like women.”
“My credit card company told me that they passed on my payment information in the district to the authorities. I feel so trapped and hunted down,” he continued. “If I get tested, my company will most likely find out I’m gay. I’ll lose my job and face public humiliation. I feel as if my whole life is about to collapse. I have never felt suicidal before and never thought I would, but I am feeling suicidal now.”
On Saturday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged people to “refrain from criticizing a certain community as it will not help efforts to contain the coronavirus spread.”
Since the onset of the pandemic this year, South Korea has recorded close to 11,000 cases of the coronavirus and 256 deaths. Its figures are relatively low given the size of its population and proximity to China, where the outbreak began. It is often cited as one of the countries most aggressively attempting to return society to a state of normality, having already re-opened most sectors of its economy.