Like many others in this time of COVID-19, I am bored. I haven’t been to the gym in months, I am teaching online from home, and about the only time I use public transportation is for trips to E-mart during off-hours to buy food. Needless to say, I have largely followed government guidelines for social distancing, though it is not easy.
The difficulty of social distancing is evident in the recent spate of outbreaks from bars in Itaewon, Hongdae, and a hagwon academy in Incheon. As cultural and social beings, it is hard for us to separate from communities that sustain us with companionship, sustenance, faith, education, and work.
But the coronavirus is devilish because these very communities are a host for this viral parasite. They are the sites where the coronavirus bedevils our better social values.
One social value that the virus has bedeviled is tolerance. Religious tolerance was tested in February after the outbreak at the non-mainstream Shincheonji Church in Daegu. Currently, tolerance for differences in sexual orientation are being tested by media reports that recent outbreaks originated in Itaewon’s gay bars. A May 17th article in this paper reported that “gay bashing ensued, particularly on the internet.” One young man from the gay community complained that “Reporters might not be aware, but mentioning sexual minority is like sending a bait for the communities who loathe” them. The devil was in the details of news stories linking the virus to these bars in this foreigner district.
In these bars, the virus was also at the root of conflict between the right to privacy and public health orders. In them, it is already a social practice to protect privacy due to various forms of discrimination. Youngsters, illegal immigrants, members of the LGBT community, instructors, and military officers, don’t want authorities (including parents) to know that they have been pub-crawling in Itaewon’s alleys. And knowing that they were violating public health orders for social distancing, bar owners and patrons didn’t bother to ensure that contact information was properly listed for contact tracing. To the beats of K-pop, the corona virus celebrated the conflict it created between privacy and public health by dancing from patron to patron.
Travelling on an instructor-host, the parasitic virus visited a college entrance exam preparation academy to infect students and bedevil schools. When the instructor said he was “unemployed,” the beautiful principle of truth, on which his profession of education is founded, was sacrificed to avoid community reprobation. His lie threatened families who had invested lifetimes of labor in their generations and the development of young minds. In these ways, the devilish virus attacks noble principles and extended community ties by praying on the social frailty of its all-to-human hosts. The human-hosts may lie to protect relations within their communities while praying that the virus doesn’t infect or kill these same people. The corona virus drives Faustian bargains not unworthy of the devil himself.
The virus even plagues the Moon administration’s attempts to reassure and to comfort, the kindest of social values. Its first reassurance was before the Shincheonji Church outbreak when the president said that the virus was largely contained. The most recent reassurance came with the policy announcement for routine, or relaxed, social distancing just before the holidays. Unfortunately, the virus confounded these reassurances and threatened this health policy by rearing its ugly horns.
Commenting on these reassurances, prominent pulmonologist Dr. Yum Ho-kee was quoted by the Herald as saying, “An alarm goes off in my head every time someone speaks confidently about the coronavirus. This is a nascent virus that we still don’t know much of.” The KCDC and medical experts say that the Moon administration needs to emphasize the continued need for social distancing and also needs to establish clearer distancing guidelines to help the public understand how to do it.
This necessity is evident even in my little neighborhood of Suyu in Gangbuk-gu, Seoul, where I recently passed a cheap pork barbecue restaurant crammed with older patrons. Those waiting for a seat extended out the doorway. This restaurant is one of many establishments across neighborhoods in Seoul that are working hard to carry on business as usual, though the virus thrives on such hard work. If one infected person in that restaurant were shouting over bottles of soju, several patrons might then infect their homes and neighborhoods. It appears that many people do not understand the grave risks the corona virus poses.
One reason may be that in South Korea’s respect for the rights of privacy, seemingly few stories have appeared in the national media that portray the suffering of COVID-19 victims. By not seeing, reading, and hearing about how the virus strikes, the public does not fully recognize the dangers of COVID-19. Many may not fully understand how innocent social gatherings can turn deadly.
Up to this point, those serving the republic have done a remarkable job of protecting our health and our rights to gather safely. However, we must deeply consider how the parasitic corona virus continues to bedevil our hosting communities and their better social values. It is only through facing the conflicts that COVID-19 creates that we can vigilantly prepare ourselves to take the needed measures which ensure our health.
Keenan Fagan teaches at Dongguk University in Seoul. -- Ed.