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[Eye Interview] ‘All I did was get sick but suddenly I was turned into someone who had done a terrible thing’

Professor Soh Chang-rok gives human rights expert’s perspective on pandemic

Soh Chang-rok, a Korea University professor and UN Human Rights Committee member, poses before an interview with The Korea Herald at Korea University on March 26. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Soh Chang-rok, a Korea University professor and UN Human Rights Committee member, poses before an interview with The Korea Herald at Korea University on March 26. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
On March 22, 2020, Soh Chang-rok was diagnosed with COVID-19. Henceforth, he would be known as “Seongbuk-gu #13” to the public. That Soh was a professor at Korea University and a human rights expert with years of experience at the UN did not mean anything. He was just the 13th confirmed case of COVID-19 in Seongbuk-gu.

In the early days of the pandemic, authorities routinely posted information on confirmed patients, including their sex, age, the district where they lived as well as detailed accounts of where they had been several days prior to the diagnosis on the internet. “People who knew me could guess from what was written in the media that it was me,” said Soh during an interview with The Korea Herald on March 26 at his office at Korea University in Seoul.

A few days after Soh was hospitalized, he received a call from a friend asking if he had COVID-19. Surprised that his friend should know that he was sick, Soh asked how he knew. He had seen it in a newspaper, his friend said. Searching the internet, Soh indeed found a newspaper article that said, “The Seongbuk-gu resident who was confirmed with novel coronavirus infection at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital located in Jongno on March 22 immediately upon arrival from abroad is a professor in his 60s.”

In his book “I Am Infected: A UN Human Rights Committee Member’s Record on Being Confirmed With Corona,” published in March this year, Soh, an elected member of the UN Human Rights Committee, recalls that he was not thinking about his right to privacy when authorities asked him for personal information, including his credit card number and a photo of himself. The credit card number would be used to trace his route and the photo used to identify him in security camera footage recorded along his route. In the few dazed hours between getting the call confirming the diagnosis and being picked up by an ambulance, Soh submitted to whatever was asked of him.

During the three weeks at the hospital where he was treated in isolation inside a negative pressure room, designed so that the virus-contaminated air would not circulate outside the room, Soh retraced his days in New York before he began to experience symptoms on March 17, 2020.

He contacted the people he had met and dined with in New York, but none of them reported having COVID-19. There was one incident that bothered him, however. He had gotten into a minor car accident in a parking lot and had spoken with the driver of the other car for more than 30 minutes, neither of them wearing a mask.

Soh recalls being irritated with the driver, a young man who appeared to be from Eastern Europe and did not speak fluent English, as he was not able to swiftly and appropriately respond as the situation demanded. In the book, Soh confesses to looking down on him for those reasons, and soon feeling ashamed about it. “I was similarly treated 30 years ago when I went to the US for graduate school,” he said during the interview.

“It seems short now, but it seemed long at the time,” said Soh about his hospital stay. “I thought I might die in there,” he said, so excruciating was the pain. “I was asked to grade the pain on a scale of zero to 10. I gave it an 8,” he said. Having temporarily lost his sense of smell and taste, he could not eat. “As I said in the book, I could not eat, sleep or excrete.”

He did a lot of thinking while hospitalized, Soh said. “I thought about my life, my family, human rights and violations of human rights of corona patients,” he said. “I have been privileged in many aspects of my life,” he said. “It was only a brief experience, but when I became a COVID-19 patient, a minority and ostracized, I realized my thoughts and work on human rights had not been right.”

“I thought how these three -- eating, sleeping and excreting -- are very important to all human beings. If you can do that, that is living and being happy. When I felt like I was dying because I could not do those things, I realized their importance. I realized that efforts to allow people to do those things in peace and comfort is the foundation of the human rights movement,” Soh writes in the book.

It was then that he determined to think more broadly and deeply about human rights, and that led him to think about writing a book. He began taking notes on his thoughts, feelings and what he thought of measures taken vis-a-vis COVID-19 patients that he thought were inappropriate from a human rights perspective. And those notes culminated in the book that explores the COVID-19 pandemic from a human rights perspective.

Soh noted that in the early days of the pandemic there was little wherewithal to consider human rights as authorities focused on containing the spread. Admittedly, there were measures that violated human rights.

In the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the competing needs to contain the spread of the illness and to protect privacy came to a head. There is no right answer to the question of which should take precedence, according to Soh.

After his discharge from the hospital, he was invited to give an online lecture on pandemics and human rights at the European Parliament’s human rights subcommittee. Based on his personal experience, he talked about how the spread of COVID-19 has impacted human rights.

While the South Korean government credited extensive testing and tracing for its relative success in curbing the spread of the infection, Soh’s European counterparts were critical of the rights violations that occurred in the process, he recalled. At the time, Soh thought the Europeans were jealous of Korea’s success, but now thinks differently. “On hindsight, I think I was also high on national pride at the time. Human rights should be viewed from a universal, from the other side’s perspective,” Soh said.

In Korea, where people are traditionally not sensitive to privacy rights, most people did not have a problem accepting the extensive testing and tracing protocol.

In a telling survey, some 70 percent of Koreans agreed with a proposal to fit self-quarantined people with GPS trackers. While the National Human Rights Commission of Korea stated its opposition to the proposal, the plan was altered to make the trackers, euphemistically named “safety bands,” compulsory for people who had violated quarantine rules, and the resulting law went into effect in late April.

The recent controversy over mandatory COVID-19 testing for all foreign workers in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province is another case of gross human rights violations, according to Soh. While not as extensively reported, such measures have already been implemented in other provinces, he said.

On the question of ensuring the collective good versus protecting individual rights, Soh said there needs to be sufficient information, thinking and opinion gathering. In urgent situations, however, there is no time to spare and that is why human rights should be taken into account in all aspects of governance. “There should be an evaluation of government policy’s impact on human rights,” he said.

The extensive gathering of personal information is legal in Korea because of a law that was introduced after the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak in Korea. “Was there an evaluation of the law’s impact on human rights?” Soh asked. “If that law were to be revised, such evaluation must be made.”

The controversy involving a patient who had visited several clubs in Itaewon known to be frequented by gay people before being diagnosed was a reminder of how LGBTQ rights are overlooked. A huge public backlash ensued following the so-called “Itaewon” outbreak, and some 2,000 people who needed to be tested could not be reached. They avoided testing for fear of outing and discrimination. It was only when the government came up with the idea of anonymous testing that they came forward to be tested. Calls to end discrimination and hate against sexual minorities also grew.

“The rights of sexual minorities might have improved as a result,” said Soh, explaining that the case illustrates the importance of talking. “It is human nature to be prejudiced, to protect themselves,” Soh said.

In the conflict between the collective good and individual rights, listening to the other side holds the key, according to Soh. “There must be efforts to understand the other side’s thinking if a compromise is to be possible,” he said.


By Kim Hoo-ran (khooran@heraldcorp.com)
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