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Pro-LGBT groups vow help in Itaewon virus breakout

A member of one of seven pro-LGBT groups speaks during a joint press conference held to announce the launch of an emergency countermeasures headquarters in central Seoul on Tuesday. The groups vowed to help in Itaewon virus breakout. (Yonhap)
A member of one of seven pro-LGBT groups speaks during a joint press conference held to announce the launch of an emergency countermeasures headquarters in central Seoul on Tuesday. The groups vowed to help in Itaewon virus breakout. (Yonhap)

LGBT and human rights groups said Tuesday that they will make concerted efforts to support sexual minorities who could have been exposed to the novel coronavirus in a popular nightlife district in Seoul, helping them undergo virus testing in a fair manner.

“We, sexual minorities, do not wish COVID-19 to spread further. We plan to communicate with health authorities to set aside any stumbling blocks holding back testing,” seven advocacy groups said in a joint press conference announcing the launch of an emergency countermeasures headquarters in central Seoul.

“Sexual minorities are concerned about exposure to domestic violence and discrimination at the workplace once their identities are disclosed during self-quarantine or after test results return positive.”

The seven groups include gay men’s group Chingusai, the Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights, Solidarity of University and Youth Queer Societies in Korea and Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea.

They added they will encourage those who have visited Seoul’s Itaewon and Gangnam in late April through early May to undergo testing voluntarily and make sure gender minorities do not face disadvantages in testing or self-isolation.

The number of virus patients in relation to the new Itaewon cluster that emerged last week reached 101, of which 64 were in Seoul, as of Tuesday morning, according to Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

The support groups spoke positively of anonymous testing currently being practiced in Seoul free of charge. Test-takers do not need to disclose their identity. They only need to give a phone number by which to be informed of the test results, officials said. They called on other municipalities to adopt the Seoul city government’s method, as authorities make an aggressive approach to get potential virus carriers tested, including levying penalties on those found to have visited Itaewon in the cited period.

The advocacy groups’ emphasis on concerns over identity disclosure during testing and self-quarantine comes as some sexual minorities have suggested the government should scrap the sharing of details of concerned persons’ movements in the nightlife district alongside information on their workplaces.

Based on a social consensus, which prioritizes public safety over personal information in health emergencies, built after the country’s experience with the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak, health authorities here have conducted rigorous contact tracing and notified the public of information on confirmed patients’ whereabouts two weeks prior to testing positive for the virus.

Such measures are credited for contributing to the country’s flattened curve -- without imposing a complete lockdown.

But initial reports on nightclubs visited by the first Itaewon patient as those targeting sexual minorities have come under fire for further singling out the group in a socially conservative society, leaving them with limited options -- left largely to choose between going into hiding or to risk coming out of the closet reluctantly with the fear of social alienation.

The group said they will respond to media reports that instigate hatred and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, while offering counseling for those who face human rights abuses during testing.

Celebrity restaurateur Hong Seok-cheon, recognized as the first openly gay celebrity in South Korea, urged people to get tested, saying “this is the time to muster courage“ to save collective efforts of infectious disease experts, medical staff and the public from going down the drain.

“Sexual minorities fundamentally fear their identity being revealed to family, those around them and the community. So (we) need the courage. … I am concerned about this incident, but above all, I am most concerned that there are so many people who are not responding to calls and have not received testing,” Hong said in a social media post.

He went on to encourage testing, saying, “You, your family and the community’s health and safety should come before your concern over ‘outing,’” emphasizing that tests can be conducted anonymously.

By Kim Bo-gyung (lisakim425@heraldcorp.com)
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