South Korea is battling a new outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus linked to nightclubs in the Itaewon district of Seoul. Itaewon’s clubs are popular with gay people, so government officials are publicly worried about a backlash against the LGBT community, and they fear some potentially infected people are reluctant to come forward for testing.
Yonhap News said on Tuesday that the Itaewon cluster now accounts for 102 confirmed coronavirus infections, with testing likely to reveal more in the coming days. About half of these cases were reported within the Seoul city limits.
“Outside of the capital, 23 cases were reported in the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, followed by seven in Incheon, west of Seoul, five in North Chungcheong Province and one each in North Jeolla Province, the southeastern port city of Busan and the southern island of Jeju,” Yonhap reported.
Most of the patients are men in their twenties: “By age, 67 of the cases were in their 20s, followed by 23 in their 30s and four each in their 40s and 50s. There were three under 19 and one aged over 60. By gender, 92 were men, while 10 were women.”
The first confirmed Itaewon infection was a 29-year-old man visiting Seoul from the city of Yongin who visited five different nightclubs on the evening of May 1 and tested positive on May 6. One of those clubs, Made, is ranked among the most popular nightspots in Itaewon, which in turn is a very popular destination for foreign visitors, making it hard for South Korean investigators to track down everyone who might have been infected. Over 3,000 tests have been performed in connection with the Itaewon cluster so far.
“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,” said one district official, alluding to the popularity of the district with gay people.
The mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, said during a press briefing that some potentially infected customers from the nightclubs “intentionally avoided our calls or wrote a wrong number in the first place” when his administration tried reaching out to offer free and anonymous coronavirus testing. Mayor Park said fines are being considered as punishment for at-risk individuals who refuse to get tested.
“If you hesitate a single day, our daily clock may stop for a month. Please contact the nearest clinic or health center right now,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun pleaded with Itaewon club patrons from a meeting of government officials on Monday.
The mayors of several other cities have reported infections linked to Itaewon clubbers who visited establishments in other cities, prompting 12 municipal governments to shut down their nightlife temporarily, as Seoul has done. Several companies have delayed plans to resume normal operations after employees who visited Itaewon tested positive.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) ruefully noted the Itaewon outbreak has “interrupted the country’s gradual reopening” after a successful coronavirus response. A key component of that response was aggressive contract tracing, which has become difficult with the Itaewon cluster because so many of the people exposed to the virus are afraid of being outed as gay.
The SCMP reported some instances of hostility toward gay South Koreans over the new coronavirus outbreak, including some angry comparisons to the Shincheonji Church, a sizable but highly reclusive and paranoid sect whose members were at one time linked to over half of the coronavirus infections in the country:
“Don’t call them a sexual minority community,” one poster wrote on the Naver portal. “They are merely perverts!”
Another asked: “Protect gay rights and let the country collapse?”
Advocacy group Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea urged the media to stop “sensationalising” the outbreak and linking the new cluster to the gay community, warning this would discourage those at risk from being tested.
Psychology Professor Lim Myung-ho of Dankook University also drew comparisons with the Shincheonji outbreak.
“When Covid-19 virus was spreading at Shincheonji Church, followers attempted to hide their religious affiliations and infections and members of a sexual minority are also backing away,” he said. “This may result in many hidden infected cases and spark a second Shincheonji crisis.”
The Health Ministry on Monday acknowledged that many gay people are nervous about being exposed in South Korea where homosexuality remains taboo and promised that the confidentiality of all patients would be protected. A Health Ministry official warned that anyone who distributes the personal information of patents or starts “groundless rumors” about them “could be criminally punished.”
The Korea Herald on Tuesday offered a primer for outsiders on the elaborate nightclub ecosystem of Seoul, which includes several types of specialized clubs that cater to specific demographics and interests. It might prove helpful to resolving the Itaewon outbreak that older people – the group most vulnerable to severe illness or death from the coronavirus – tend to frequent different clubs than younger people.
South Koreans do not mince words when it comes to classifying their nightclubs. A popular species of club that caters to older clients is known as the “colatechque” because they were originally created as non-alcoholic establishments that would appeal to very young customers, but the older folks decided they liked them better.
The hot hook-up establishments for youngsters on the prowl are called “pochas” – literally, hunting blinds – and some of them cut to the chase by equipping each table with electronic tablets that can be used to proposition customers seated at other tables. On the other end of the spectrum, at the genteel establishments most South Koreans refer to as “nightclubs,” strangers are expected to be formally introduced to each other by the waiters.