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Public fury grows as some politicians flout COVID-19 rules

A Seoul hotel lobby appears empty on Monday, when the government imposed a ban on social gatherings of five people or more. (Yonhap)
A Seoul hotel lobby appears empty on Monday, when the government imposed a ban on social gatherings of five people or more. (Yonhap)

Public fury is growing in South Korea over elected officials flouting safety guidance and practices as the country grapples with a record number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Hwang Un-ha on Dec. 26 dined out at a restaurant in Daejeon in the company of five people in apparent violation of social distancing orders. 

Among those at the get-together was the former mayor of Daejeon, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 a few days later. As a result of the meeting, the ruling party lawmaker is now under quarantine.

Just before Christmas, Korea introduced a ban on social gatherings of more than four people that lasted beyond the New Year’s holiday. There are fines for breaking the ban, but it relies mostly on the honor system for compliance.

Faced with criticism, Hwang said in a Facebook statement that he ran into acquaintances at the restaurant “by chance.” The Daejeon metropolitan office later announced Hwang had not violated the ban, although it is true he and the five others were seated in the same private room of the restaurant.

The lawmaker then proceeded to deflect criticism by blaming the media.

“Some media outlets ran stories that appear to have spawned misunderstanding. I’m wasting my time trying to correct them.”

Hwang is not likely to face consequences, as it’s hard to pin down concrete evidence that he had planned the group dinner.

Ministry of Health and Welfare spokesperson Son Young-rae said Sunday it was “up to the municipal officers to decide if the particular event involving the lawmaker should qualify as a breach,” adding, “I just know what’s reported in the press.”

Front-line workers say such disregard for social distancing from the country’s leadership feels like a “slap in the face.”

“To me it matters little that what the lawmaker pulled off is not technically a violation. The point is to keep the incidence of illness below the medical system capacity by reducing social contact,” said Dr. Cho Seung-kook, who has been caring for COVID-19 patients for the last eight months at a hospital in Wonju, Gangwon Province.

“It infuriates me because I know what my patients and my colleagues are going through,” he said.

Pulmonologist Dr. Chun Eun-mi said such behaviors “endanger public health.” “Eating indoors is one of the riskiest activities,” she said. “I’m also worried it might serve to undermine the gravity of the situation and embolden those who question the seriousness of the disease.”

Hwang is not the first politician to be caught disregarding social distancing.

In early December, Democratic Party Rep. Youn Mee-hyang published a photo of herself at a maskless wine party with friends at a time when the country was debating whether to tighten restrictions amid a steep rise in infections. Later the same month, a representative of Seoul’s Mapo-gu, also of the Democratic Party, was spotted partying so loudly that the neighbors called the police.

Democratic Party chief Lee Nak-yon has had to quarantine several times after coming into contact with a patient.

Choi Jae-sung, senior presidential secretary for political affairs, played a soccer game on the last weekend of November just about a week after Cheong Wa Dae had said it had ordered its staff to cancel social plans.

Many have called out the hypocrisy of the leaders not practicing what they preach.

“This is obviously beyond the pale,” said Kim Jong-yong, 29, who lives in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province.

“I think it shows that politicians are above the rules while the rest of us are told to put our lives on hold to help the country fight the pandemic.”

Park Sang-min, 28, in Seoul, said it was “blatant hypocrisy” on the part of the politicians. He said he has forgone seeing his parents who live in a different city for almost a year.

“I imagine there are a lot of people like me who haven’t been with their loved ones for a long time,” he said.

“I have been changing a lot in my life to abide by the restrictions. People are making sacrifices for their families and neighbors, and they are doing so in the spirit of keeping the community safe.”

A Gwanghwamun pub owner said it was “insulting” and “baffling” to see politicians break the rules that small businesses have had to endure for several months in the name of public health.

“It makes me question why I’ve had to comply with closures at the cost of going into debt.”

Lee Dong-gwi, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, said that such displays of transgression from politicians could invite public skepticism in the social distancing campaign.

“Such messaging from politicians will make it harder to get people to follow precautions,” he said.

Yoo Myoung-soon, a public health communications professor at Seoul National University, said that “people in a position of authority setting the example is a critical component in crisis leadership.”

Public administration professor Park Sang-in at Seoul National University said another reason for officials to strictly observe social distancing is because quarantining could affect their ability to carry out official duties.

“This negligence is unbecoming of politicians and officials. It is their responsibility to serve the constituency, and not shift the burden of punishing social distancing measures to the public.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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