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‘Coronavirus blame game has to stop’

Coronavirus patients and their contacts being exposed to public shaming in the name of public health is a trend that could hurt the pandemic response, experts say.

Cheong Wa Dae chief of staff Noh Young-min has come under fire after he called the organizers of an anti-Moon Jae-in protest “murderers” at last week’s parliamentary audit session.

“Not thieves, the organizers of this protest are murderers,” he said, accusing them of coronavirus spread and economic decline, following the ruling Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers who said they were “thieves.”

A lawyer group reported Noh to the prosecution for defamation Friday, saying the presidential chief of staff was making an “extreme statement based on falsehoods.”

“Such remarks by a top-ranking Cheong Wa Dae official targeting private citizens need to be seriously held accountable,” said Kim Tae-hoon of Lawyers for Human Rights and Unification of Korea. He added that Noh was wrong to attribute coronavirus deaths and the pandemic-linked economic crisis to people and not the government.

But this is not the first time an individual or group has become the subject of public denouncement following infections.

Former Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Bu-gyeom also said in an August statement the anti-Moon protesters were “terrorists waging biological warfare against the country.”

In February, Korea’s 31st coronavirus patient was widely ridiculed for her apparent connection to a super-spreader event. Churchgoers, sexual minorities and citizens of Daegu -- Korea’s initial coronavirus epicenter -- were among those who fell under similar scrutiny in subsequent outbreaks.

Na Baeg-ju, who served as the public health policy director at the Seoul metropolitan office for over three years until recently, said there should be a “frequent reminder that we are all victims of the pandemic.”

“This is a fight against the virus, not people who catch it,” he said.

Discriminating messages or gestures from high-profile political figures in particular are “inappropriate,” he added.

Fears of social stigma are common among people with and without coronavirus alike, according to psychologist Yook Sung-pil who is leading the Korean Psychological Association’s phone counseling program for mental health support during the pandemic.

“Patients have told me they are worried about returning to work or school after recovery because of how they might be judged by others,” Yook said. “Some people say they are afraid of their illness becoming known -- should they get infected -- and possible stigma associated with it more so than the coronavirus itself.”

For the first few months of the pandemic here, travel histories and details such as the sex, age and city of residence of recently diagnosed patients were disclosed to everyone via mobile phone alerts and then posted on government websites for the sake of contact tracing. This practice has been altered after concerns about the violation of privacy and other rights.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Woo-joo said the scapegoating was, more importantly, not helpful in terms of coronavirus control.

“My concern is that people might be intimidated into avoiding testing. Holding people responsible for social distancing breaches is one thing. Antagonizing patients or contacts is another,” he said. “This coronavirus blame game has to stop.”

By Kim Arin (