As news of the surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Daegu spread, The Drudge Report, a sensationalist site run by investigative reporter Matt Drudge, ran a photo of a thermal imaging device monitoring people at Seoul Station. A few weeks earlier, the same site had a photo of a group of demonstrators in Seoul calling for a ban on travel from China. The linked to an article on the spread of “Sinophobia” worldwide.
These images touch on an important question that has been overlooked in the hysteria of reporting on diseases: the balance between individual rights and public safety in fighting epidemics. The question, of course, applies to all nations, not just South Korea.
Since 2000, as series of infectious diseases have spread rapidly, causing panic and challenging public health systems. This include the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS), and the Ebola epidemics in Africa in the 2010s.
After the SARS outbreak, the 2005 World Health Assembly revised the International Health Regulations to improve international cooperation to respond to international health emergencies, which came into legal force in 2007. The World Health Assembly is an annual meeting of the 194 member states of the World Health Organization that coordinates health policy among the nations of the world.
The goal of the IHR is “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.” The core position of the IHR is that decisions about public health should be based on scientific justification.
One of the main concerns of the IHR was that travel bans would impede international responses to crises. During the West Africa Ebola epidemic in 2014, for example, there were calls to ban entry of persons from the affected countries in the US, but additional screening measures at five major airports instead. Airlines, however, began dropping flights, which slowed the arrival of medical supplies and personnel to stricken areas.
As news of the spread of COVID-19 from its epicenter in Wuhan, calls for banning flights to China spread quickly. On Jan. 31, the US restricted entry of people who had visited China. In response, US airlines canceled flights to China and the remaining flights were funneled to seven major airports for additional screening. Other nations have canceled flights and restricted entry to people from China.
Travelers have been detained and quarantined. In Japan, authorities quarantined the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama, but instead of controlling the disease, it spread rapidly among the passengers. Now 650 passengers have the virus. The surge in COVID-19 cases in South Korea prompted Israel to force a Korean airliner to return to Seoul after removing and quarantining the 12 Israelis aboard. The country then banned entry of all foreign nationals who have visited South Korea and Japan in the last 14 days.
Much is not known about the COVID-19, so only time will tell whether such drastic “interference with international traffic” has scientific justification. It looks more like an overreaction stemming from reassertion of national authority that has spread around the globe over the last five years. Globalization, which informed the adoption of the 2005 IHR, among many initiatives in international governance is out, and lone national individualism is in.
For international governance to work, nation states need to remember the shoe-on-the-other-foot test. If a nation bans entry to nationals from a specific nation, that nation can turn around and ban entry in return. The cycle can repeat itself with other nations, harming international cooperation while infringing on individual rights all around.
The same, of course, applies to how nations deal with the threat internally. The goal should be “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response” to the disease, not to impose police state restrictions on individual rights. If the state can use public health emergencies to curtail freedom, then what will prevent it from doing so in other emergencies?
This is where South Korea is important because, as a recent entrant to the ranks of democratic nations, memories of the abuse of state power are still strong. South Korea should take the lead in showing that its response to COVID-19 is not state-power panic but “commensurate with and restricted to” the risk of the disease.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.