Starting Wednesday, the government placed all new arrivals here in a mandatory self-quarantine for two weeks in a bid to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Regardless of the country of departure, nationality or length of visit, they must quarantine themselves in their private dwellings in Korea or at government-designated facilities.
Though the government has not barred the entry of foreigners, nonessential visits including foreign tourist arrivals are expected to decrease.
The government started the quarantine system for all arrivals from Europe on March 22, then from the US on March 27, and extended the measure to the rest of the world. It may have expanded the quarantine gradually considering its disinfection capabilities and national interests, but the step is belated and can hardly be viewed as proactive.
The mandatory quarantine came amid an influx of patients who were confirmed for COVID-19. Those from Europe and the US take up an overwhelming proportion of confirmed cases, but recent weeks saw confirmed cases increasing in arrivals from Southeast Asian countries as well.
From now on, we need to supervise the self-quarantine of all arrivals effectively. Monitoring them to make sure they are not breaking their quarantine will further stress public administration and health systems.
About 7,000 people enter Korea from abroad each day. So the number of people to be self-isolated is expected to hit around 100,000 in just two weeks. Currently, more than 14,000 people are self-quarantined under the supervision of municipal and district governments. It is questionable if the government can supervise the self-quarantine of that many people thoroughly.
Case officers of municipal and district governments are required to get in touch with self-quarantined people one-on-one daily to check if they are staying in isolation or developing COVID-19 symptoms. Local governments say supervision will be impossible if the number of people to be monitored approaches 100,000. Of about 100,000 entrants expected to arrive in Korea over two weeks, 10,000 to 15,000 are projected to be foreigners. The government must reconsider its policy of allowing foreigners as well as Korean nationals to enter, be tested and get treated with Korean taxpayers’ money, as health care workers complain of accumulating fatigue.
Violation of self-quarantine is incessant. A British man living in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, traveled to four cities without wearing a facial mask and came into contact with 23 people in five days before he tested positive for the virus. He was tested after returning from a trip to Thailand, and was required to self-isolate until results were out. A German student is said to have visited several spots in Busan during what should have been his self-isolation in his dorm. He also confirmed positive.
Members of the public are putting up with the inconvenience of practicing government-reinforced “social distancing,” while health care workers are fighting the epidemic desperately. Deviation from self-isolation not only makes these people’s efforts come to naught, but also threatens their lives. If the government fails to control an influx of overseas cases effectively, coronavirus outbreaks may surge again. The government says there will be no problem because self-quarantined people are required to use a smartphone app that can monitor them. The app uses GPS to track the location of a smartphone. If those in quarantine venture outside their designated area, an alert will be sent to the case officers of related local governments.
Reportedly three or four deviations have been detected a day through the app. But if a person goes out and leaves his or her smartphone at home, the absence may not be discovered. Tighter measures are needed. Tracking bracelets used in Hong Kong are worth considering. The government also needs to consider demanding reimbursement for damages from violators in addition to punishment.
Self-quarantine is hard to control. If the number of people to be monitored and treated increases explosively, disinfection will certainly encounter limits. All entrants into Korea must try to comply with guidelines for self-quarantine by themselves -- for the safety of all the other citizens rather than for fear of penalty. To cope effectively with an expected surge of self-quarantined people, their active cooperation and sense of citizenship are needed more than ever.