People line up for COVID-19 tests at a testing facility in central Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Kang, 42, who runs a butcher shop in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, experienced a sore throat and dry coughs two weeks ago, which are the common cold-like symptoms of the fast-spreading omicron variant.
As expected, two lines appeared on an at-home test kit for COVID-19, meaning a positive result. Yet, instead of seeking an official diagnosis from a nearby public health center, Kang continued tending to his store to process pre-orders, with “extra attention to personal hygiene.”
“A weeklong quarantine would have been a great loss to me because I run the shop entirely by myself,” he said.
Two years of the pandemic has already affected his livelihood pretty bad, Kang said. He couldn’t afford another major loss.
For people like him, a COVID-19 diagnosis means a loss of income. And the omicron’s milder symptoms, plus the lack of government support in treating it, are making them shun diagnostic tests and just go on with their work.
Experts and health officials are worried over a growing sign of complacency, warning the public that the omicron may be milder, but still dangerous.
Livelihood before omicron
A woman surnamed Koh running a clothing store in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, also attested to this growing sentiment among small merchants that there is “no need” to get diagnosed.
She said the owner of a coffee shop near her store had recently gone through the process of testing, diagnosis and week-long mandatory quarantine at home.
“He had mild symptoms and recovered faster than expected during a mandatory self-isolation period. Without special treatment offered by public health centers under the current self-care system, there seems to be no good reason to shut down the store, taking the risk of losing money,” the 38-year-old Koh said.
Unlike in the early stages of the pandemic when hospitalization, or admission to non-hospital treatment centers was the norm for COVID-19 care, South Korea now tells most patients to take care of themselves independently at home. Only those categorized as high-risk groups are offered daily monitoring by phone and hospital beds, if deemed necessary.
For the seven-day home care period, the government offers cash assistance, but the amount has been sharply cut as skyrocketing caseloads have put a strain on budgets.
The total financial assistance for COVID-19 positive persons is revised down to 100,000 won ($82.50) starting March 16, from the previous 244,000 won, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
In addition, small business owners can apply for a loss compensation scheme, introduced October last year. The coverage rate is set at 80 percent, but many merchants feel it falls far short of actual losses since it only deals with damage amount proven with official records and caused directly by the government’s virus curb measures.
“In the absence of sufficient financial packages to compensate pandemic-hit small merchants and their family members, it is likely that some infected people who do not belong to high-risk groups will continue to refuse COVID-19 tests as well as mandatory self-isolation because it’s a matter of (economic) life for some,” said Chun Eun-mi, a professor at Ewha Womans University Medical Center.
No sick leave
For a woman surnamed Jeong, it is the sick leave system at her workplace that makes her avoid getting infected, or if infected, getting diagnosed. As a hotelier, she can’t work from home.
“If I test positive for COVID-19, I have to spend some of my annual paid holidays for a quarantine period, as my company doesn’t grant infectious disease emergency leave,” said Jeong, 31, who is going to tie the knot this fall.
“I had cold symptoms a couple of days ago, but I just took some pills and didn’t take a rapid antigen test,” she said. With her wedding and honeymoon already planned out, she said that she didn’t want to waste her leave days on being stuck at home.
By law, employees who have worked less than one year in their companies are entitled to up to 11 days of paid leave. After completing the first year, the leave days could extend to as many as 26 days.
Even though the government advises companies to offer special paid leave for employees placed under quarantine with an infectious disease, not many companies, especially small ones, do so.
These companies tell employees to take unpaid leave or use whatever is left in their paid leave.
According to a survey conducted on 300 small and medium-sized enterprises across the nation between Feb. 18-22 by the Korea Federation of SMEs, merely 62.9 percent of the companies answered they offered additional paid leave to their infected workers, while the rest advised them to use their annual paid holidays.
Some welcome omicron
On the contrary, some workers feel tempted to get omicron as an escape from work.
“Since the omicron variant is proven to cause milder symptoms, I once thought of catching it to escape from an overload of work,” said Shin, an office worker in his 30s living in central Seoul.
A person claiming to be a confirmed COVID-19 patient on Friday offered a face mask he or she had worn for 50,000 won on an online secondhand market called Joonggonara.
A screenshot of a now-deleted posting on online secondhand market Joonggonara Friday, selling a KF-94 face mask worn by an infected person for 50,000 won ($41) on March 16. (Joonggonara)
“Wear this mask to take a break from work or receive the government’s emergency cash grants for the infected,” read the post.
In response to the advertisement, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced it would closely monitor online secondhand platforms and crack down on any postings that “threaten public health.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum warned against the act of refusing COVID-19 tests, stressing the importance of virus prevention.
“Although the omicron variant‘s fatality is relatively low, the severity of the condition varies from person to person. If you postpone your COVID-19 diagnosis, you could miss the right time to treat the disease, while the possibility of virus transmission to your family and colleagues increases,“ Kim said during a press conference.
A drug ministry official also urged adherence to virus rules to protect the vulnerable like the elderly and young children, saying “Some people tired of the prolonged pandemic take the virus infections lightly, but the possibility remains that the omicron variant could lead to serious complications.”
The total COVID-19 caseload surpassed 10 million Tuesday, with the tally growing by over 353,000 from the previous day, which means one out of five Koreans have become infected with the virus. The death toll reached 13,141, while the fatality rate stood at 0.13 percent, according to the KDCA.
By Choi Jae-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org