SEOUL, South Korea – Arrest officers arrived for the young man about a month after he was declared free of the coronavirus and released from hospital.
While battling a mild case of the disease, he had gone from a nondescript college student with a few credits to graduate to one of South Korea's most maligned criminal suspects. The mayor of his city, Incheon, called his behavior "absolutely inexcusable". Media reports and newspaper articles have abused him. On Twitter, someone suggested that the 25-year-old deserved to be handcuffed and stoned on a popular street in central Incheon.
His alleged crime: He lied to contact Tracer. He said he didn't have a job, even though he actually had a sideline teaching children at a cram school and in private tutoring sessions. Some of his students and fellow teachers later tested positive for the virus, leading to allegations that the delay caused by his lie had the cascading effect of infecting dozens and causing thousands to be tested and quarantined.
Now he's in prison waiting for the trial. He is accused of obstructing epidemiological investigators. Reckoning with up to two years in prison, it has become a cautionary story in a nation that knows about vigilance and shame. His name was not published, as is typical of criminal cases in South Korea.
In addition to digital surveillance, careful contact tracing, and the medical skills that have made responding to the coronavirus the envy of the world, South Korea is also relying on the blunt letter of the law to help fight the pandemic.
After authorities announced at the start of the country's coronavirus outbreak that they would take a "zero tolerance" approach to those who disregard their disease response, they threatened to prosecute everyone from quarantine dodgers to objections to them to mask who are not honest with the investigators.
Police in South Korea investigated more than 1,500 people for possible disease control law violations in mid-August and sentenced more than 900 to prosecution. According to the police, a dozen people have been detained pending trial. The number is expected to increase dramatically in the coming weeks as the country struggles to handle a new surge in cases fueled by a right-wing Christian group, many of whom are suspicious and not of the liberal government cooperate with the authorities.
Governments around the world, including Singapore, the UK and Australia, have also turned to law enforcement to enforce restrictions related to coronavirus. Some of the increased police operations have raised concerns among human rights lawyers, who suggest that there is a delicate balance between taking measures to protect the public and violating civil rights.
In May, Human Rights Watch warned that authorities in Myanmar, where at least 500 were detained for violating curfews or circumventing quarantine, were disproportionately responding to public health risks and potentially exacerbating the crisis by increasing the prison population.
The criminalization of infectious diseases is a long-debated and researched topic among epidemiologists, especially those who have worked with HIV-afflicted populations realizing how the specter of criminal prosecution can create a stigma on testing and treatment. With the rapidly developing COVID-19 pandemic, however, the careful review of legal strategy has been dwarfed by the current crisis response.
"Criminalizing the disease, to set an example because it is a crisis situation, can be problematic," said Seo Bo-kyeong, a medical anthropologist and professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "The aim of epidemiological research should be that people are not afraid of the consequences."
Lee Man-hee, the founder and messiah of a fringe Christian sect that has been linked to thousands of infections in March and accused of obstructing epidemiologists, is among those imprisoned in South Korea. a man in his twenties who lied about having been to an area with a number of cases to get a coronavirus test; A man in his sixties who repeatedly breached a 14-day quarantine after entering the country to use the sauna.
The 25-year-old in Incheon tested positive for the coronavirus after a weekend of clubbing and drinking in a popular nightlife district in Seoul where a number of cases emerged in early May. When a contact tracer asked him where he had been in the days before his positive coronavirus test, the young man appeared to be cooperative. But he didn't mention teaching, said Hanaram Jang, an epidemiologist from Incheon City.
Three days later, contact tracers were given access to GPS location data from the man's cell phone and questioned him about inconsistencies in his interview. He admitted that he had taught a math class with several students from a private Cram school and had homeschooled a pair of 13-year-old twins.
The traces of infections leading from the man meandered through a karaoke spot that his students attended to a taxi driver singing there, to a 1-year birthday party at which the taxi driver was doing a weekend gig as a photographer massive 1,600-employee warehouse where one of the birthday party attendees worked. Epidemiologists tracked up to seven degrees of infection in the man, Jang said.
Jang, a public health doctor who worked for Incheon City in lieu of military service, said it was impossible to say if the infections could have been stopped if the man had appeared from the start.
"He was also someone who fell victim to the virus, and he was cooperative," Jang said. "He's been honest about the rest – whether he left the 1 percent off on purpose or really can't remember, it's hard to tell."
Jang said he can understand why people feel uncomfortable about invasive questions about their personal lives. In the early days of the outbreak, when people were not so aware of the need to trace contacts, many were not cooperative and sometimes hung up the phone abruptly, he recalled.
He said he was concerned about the 25-year-old's vitriol levels.
"It could be a double-edged sword. As the stigma of those who test positive increases, people may be afraid of being tested," he said.
Seo, the anthropologist, also noted that the nightclub breakout began in a gay club. And while the man's sexual orientation is not known in South Korea, even suggesting he might be gay could have a significant impact on his professional and personal life, she said.
"He was a young person with an unstable job in a precarious situation," she said. She brought harsh criminal charges against infected people, saying, "Patients are viewed as those who have failed morally and are causing harm to society."
On the eve of his trial, which was originally due to begin last week at an Incheon courthouse, authorities announced they would postpone non-urgent cases because of the recent surge in coronavirus infections.
With the virus continuing to infect hundreds across the country every day, he will remain in jail until at least September 15, when his trial is now due to resume – barring further coronavirus-related delays.
© 2020 Los Angeles Times
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