A COVID-19 lesson from Seoul

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    `Thus, a simple public health problem inevitably jumped to the socio-cultural sphere in the nation’s capital, fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry against Seoul’s sexual minorities.’

    AS the Philippines readies itself for the gradual opening of the economy and easing of mass mobility restrictions in connection with the effort to stem the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worthwhile to look and learn from the experience of other countries such as South Korea which is grappling to contain a second wave of infections.

    Seoul’s model is a textbook case on how an outbreak develops and what authorities can do by way of an efficient contact tracing, ahead of prompt medical response. South Korea’s cases increased exponentially from January 20 to February 20, 2020 with the sudden jump attributed to Patient 31 who attended religious services at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in Daegu. Extensive mass testing in communities and among motorists along highways, followed by contact tracing, isolation and medical care resulted in gradual flattening of the curve and arresting the spread of COVID-19.

    South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore were among the countries which successfully fought the coronavirus thru well-organized epidemic control programs. Seoul also skipped the use of drastic measures such as quarantining entire cities. By the first week of April, the country reported 204 deaths from 10,423 cases, with over 494,711 people tested, a case fatality rate of 1.95% which is lower than the WHO’s global case fatality rate of 4.34 percent.

    Weeks later, South Korea found itself grappling with the onslaught of a second wave of the epidemic, this time triggered by a fun-seeking Korean male who visited five nightclubs and bars in Seoul’s Itaewon entertainment district in a single night before testing positive for the virus. Further contact tracing revealed that more than 100 infections in this second cluster appear linked to the nightspots.

    Exacerbating the situation and giving credence to “when it rains, it pours” both in good and bad luck, the Christian church-founded newspaper Kookmin Ilbo reported that the places the man visited in Itaewon on May 2 included a gay club. This report was met with a barrage of anti-gay slurs on social media, condemning the man and those at the club for endangering the health of other Koreans.

    Thus, a simple public health problem inevitably jumped to the socio-cultural sphere in the nation’s capital, fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry against Seoul’s sexual minorities. Despite its technological and scientific advancements, South Korea is still a conservative society which frowns upon homosexual relationships.

    Sexual stigma has added an additional hurdle in the already daunting tasks of health authorities of tracking down and testing thousands of people who may have come in contact with those infected in the nightclubs and bars of Itaewon — obviously the feared second wave of COVID-19 infections in Seoul. Authorities have closed down such entertainment placed in the meantime.

    This experience should teach a lesson to the Philippines, where COVID-19 stigma, harassment and discrimination have been confined so far to the ranks of our heroic health workers. Discrimination of the sexual kind, as in the case of HIV and AIDS, should not be reinforced at this time of the coronavirus pandemic.

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