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[Herald Interview] ‘Stigma and discrimination undermine epidemic responses’

UNAIDS Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific Eamonn Murphy (UNAIDS)
UNAIDS Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific Eamonn Murphy (UNAIDS)

A key lesson from the HIV epidemic is that stigma and discrimination often send people with symptoms underground, ultimately endangering the health of the general public and undermining epidemic responses.

The same goes for the COVID-19 outbreak, said Eamonn Murphy, regional director for Asia and the Pacific at the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, in an email interview with The Korea Herald.

“This virus is a threat to all of humanity, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or faith,” said Murphy, who has led and facilitated a joint UN response to support countries across the Asia-Pacific region in ending the AIDS epidemic by a global target of 2030. “COVID-19 diagnostics and care must be accessible and available for all.”

The prevailing prejudices, stigma and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in South Korea were laid bare amid the country’s struggle to bring the deadly virus under control.

In early May, a 29-year-old man tested positive after visiting several bars and clubs popular with the LGBTI community, which prompted a flood of homophobic comments and hate speech blaming sexual minorities for reviving COVID-19.

Such hostility sparked fears about being outed or associated with the LGBTI community by getting tested for the virus, hampering the government’s efforts to trace thousands of people who had visited the area and may have been exposed.

To encourage more people to get tested, the Korean government opted to provide anonymous testing. In response, more than 40,000 nightclub visitors and their contacts were tested, helping the government contain the virus. In total, some 270 patients were traced to the relevant cluster.

“Stigma and discrimination only undermine the solidarity needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Murphy, based in Bangkok, while adding that anonymous testing was a positive step. “Tackling stigma and discrimination is not only a moral imperative, it is in everyone’s interests.”

Being gay is not illegal in Korea and neither is being in a homosexual relationship, but sexual minorities face widespread discrimination. Many keep their identities hidden from family and colleagues for fear of judgment, as being outed can cost them their reputations and their jobs.

According to the latest Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report published in 2019, Korea was fourth from the bottom in terms of LGBTI inclusiveness among member countries surveyed. It scored 2.8 points out of 10, with the OECD average being 5.1.

“The reason behind stigma and discrimination against LGBTI lies in the lack of awareness and understanding of sexuality and gender norms that further causes prejudice and fear,” Murphy said. “Other causes may include lack of understanding about other people, lack of empathy for those people perceived as different from oneself and fear of the unknown.”

Enacting comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation is one step that Korea could take to change the situation, he added. 

“That legislation should explicitly address discrimination in all spheres of life and prohibit discrimination on any grounds, including race, age, HIV status, gender as well as sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said, adding that it should “impose appropriate penalties for direct and indirect discrimination” and “provide for effective remedies.”

An anti-discrimination bill was proposed in June by the minority opposition Justice Party, with support from a few other lawmakers.

The bill has been submitted to the National Assembly six times since 2006, but has never passed in the face of strong opposition from Protestant groups that take issue with the provisions outlawing discrimination against LGBTI people.

“Countries around the world that have anti-discrimination legislation have proven to have more effective public health responses for a number of issues including HIV and COVID-19,” he said.

By Ock Hyun-ju (