The controversy has drawn attention to several aspects of South Korea’s COVID-19 policy that have not received much media attention. The first is the recognition of vaccinations abroad. Before vaccines were widely available, South Korea required anyone entering the country to self-quarantine for 14 days. As the pace of vaccination picked up in the middle of this year, the quarantine was lifted for those vaccinated in South Korea. Under pressure from Koreans overseas, the government set up a system to lift the quarantine for people vaccinated overseas. Meanwhile, South Korean citizens vaccinated abroad have encountered similar difficulties, forcing many to be revaccinated in South Korea. After the omicron variant appeared, the government again demanded quarantine, this time for 10 days, for anyone entering the country.
Although unpopular among travelers, the strict quarantine of the pre-vaccine era was fair and based on sound epidemiological principles. In the event of a pandemic, quarantines work best when applied universally, regardless of nationality or origin of travel. This policy worked for South Korea in 2020. The country has remained open but has been successful in keeping infections low.
Things changed when the policy shifted to selective quarantine based on location of vaccination. The official line was that health authorities feared that vaccination certificates from abroad could be falsified and thus pose a risk. While valid, no other developed country has adopted this approach; most recognized foreign vaccinations while a few have kept the doors closed. The focus on the location of vaccination helps explain why authorities have refused to recognize overseas vaccinations for foreign residents.
The second is the use of a vaccination pass. Many national and local governments in places with high immunization rates have adopted vaccine passes, but not without controversy. In South Korea, controversy has erupted over a recent proposal to require young people between the ages of 12 and 18 to present a vaccine pass to enter high schools, public study rooms and libraries, although vaccination is not compulsory for school. Parents who remain reluctant to have their children vaccinated are unhappy with this requirement and have started to back down.
On the other end of the age spectrum, older Koreans who are fully immunized but are uncomfortable with using technology may be excluded from public life. Cell phone circulation in South Korea is among the highest in the world, but some seniors limit their use to voice calls and text messages.
As elsewhere, the purpose of the vaccination passes is twofold: to create spaces where vaccinated people can resume normal life and to put pressure on the unvaccinated to be vaccinated. This makes sense in theory and works well in high risk situations such as when traveling and at large public gatherings. However, problems arise when the vaccines start to affect daily activities, such as school and shopping. To work, a pass must be verified and people who do not “pass” are turned away. This weighs on businesses and institutions, creating social stress in the process.
At the heart of the controversy is the power of the COOV app to limit what people can do. The technology-resistant elderly and foreign residents vaccinated abroad are not many, but they are part of society. Although many more in number, the teens and their worried parents share the same fear of being excluded from society by the app.
As the sudden onset of the omicron variant has shown, COVID-19 continues to spread new fears and prolong the return to normal life. It has tormented policy makers and public health experts every moment. Despite growing national criticism and a recent increase in the number of cases, South Korea has done much better than most other countries in dealing with the pandemic.
South Korea’s response to the pandemic has focused on reducing the spread of the disease and its impact on society. Controls have been adopted and adjusted in the context of their overall effect on the company. Policy makers should build on this experience to develop practices that encourage cooperation with public health measures instead of fear of omnipotent application.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes about Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. – Ed.