A heated dispute has erupted over the planned extension of South Korea’s vaccine pass rules to discount and department stores among unvaccinated people, who are raising questions about their basic rights and fairness in applying the pass system.
The government decided to expand the facilities that require the vaccine pass, following a sharp increase in new COVID-19 cases and growing concerns about the omicron variant.
Previously, the vaccine pass requirements were applied to a range of multiuse facilities including restaurants, cafes, gyms and libraries, while discount stores, department stores and religious facilities were excluded.
Starting from Jan. 10, those without the proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result cannot shop at big box and department stores measuring 3,000 square meters or more. Even those who want to shop alone to buy groceries cannot access over 2,000 discount and department stores under the revised rules.
The country’s daily coronavirus cases stayed below 4,000 for the third straight day Tuesday thanks to the revised social distancing rules, but other figures such as nearly 1,000 critically ill patients suggest the battle ahead remains tough. Adding to extra concerns is that two patients infected with the omicron variant have died -- the first omicron-linked deaths in the country.
Against this backdrop, the government and health authorities should remain on high alert and there is no doubt that the vaccine pass system is one of those effective tools that can help rein in the upsurge of COVID-19 cases.
But a sense of urgency linked to the fight against the virus does not necessarily justify hasty or excessive measures that could generate too many side effects, especially given that the public is already cooperating with the government’s vaccine policy.
Korea’s overall vaccination rate -- those who have completed the second jab -- is 83.1 percent of the total population, recording the highest rate among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member nations.The figure for those who have gotten their third shots is 37 percent, and 78.3 percent for those aged 60 or over. Other vaccination numbers are going up as well, signaling a positive trend in the coming months, though it is difficult to rule out the possibility that the omicron and other new variants could disrupt the country’s social distancing regime.
As for the dispute over fairness, health authorities said the reason for excluding religious facilities in the revised list is that churches and temples are already subject to tougher measures than the vaccine pass system requires.
Last year, there were a total of 754 cases at discount and department stores, while the figure for religious facilities was 7,491.
Even experts are divided over the effectiveness of the comprehensive vaccine pass system. Proponents argue that Korea’s restrictions are not particularly harsh compared with those of other countries struggling to contain COVID-19. Skeptical doctors point out that people wearing masks are allowed to use crowded subways and buses, more dangerous conditions than big box and department stores.
Another worrisome aspect is the abuse of power in the name of clamping down on vaccine pass violations. On Dec. 29, police investigators raided cafes which openly violated the social distancing rules by extending their business hours. The police raids were widely viewed as abuses of power, as they are usually reserved for highly serious criminal cases.
Last week, a group of 1,023 people, including doctors, filed a joint lawsuit against the vaccine pass system.
The government’s push for implementing the vaccine pass to prevent the spread of the virus is understandable, but it should also modify rules if necessary to avoid going overboard.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org