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Contact tracing South Korea’s latest coronavirus outbreak exposes LGBT+ people to hate

Contact tracing South Korea’s latest coronavirus outbreak exposes LGBT+ people to hate

  • At least 79 new cases are linked to nightclubs and bars that one coronavirus patient visited.
Halloween festival in Itaewon Dong.

A new coronavirus outbreak in the South Korean capital, Seoul, has also seen a rise in homophobic hate speech.

The southeast Asian nation has achieved enviable results in flattening the coronavirus pandemic curve.

But the latest outbreak has seen around 79 cases linked to nightclubs and bars that one patient visited a week ago.

The 29-year-old went barhopping around Itaewon Dong. The neighborhood is the city’s international district, popular with tourists.

But it is also a center for the LGBT+ scene and includes an area dubbed ‘Homo Hill’ or ‘LGBTQ Street’ – a relatively safe space for the community in a country where many remain in the closet.

Now officials are trying to track down thousands of people who were in the area. But many do not want to come forward, fearing that if they identify themselves, they will be outed.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon claims that about 3,000 out of more than 5,500 people who visited the Itaewon area either provided false phone numbers or did not answer calls from the officials.

Trolls attack ‘filthy’ gay bars

Meanwhile, South Korea’s homophobes have turned the incident into a witch hunt, compounding the problem.

South Korean media outlets fuelled the stigma against the gay scene with their reports. In particular Kookmin Ilbo, a major daily newspaper with links to an evangelical church, has led the way.

For several days, ‘gay club’ and ‘gay coronavirus’ have been among the most searched terms on social media. Meanwhile internet trolls have spread hate speech and images claiming to show what ‘really’ happens at the ‘filthy’ gay bars.

Homosexuality is legal in South Korea but LGBT+ people have few protections and frequently suffer hate.

Chingusai, a South Korea-based LGBTQ activist group, said the stigma is harming efforts to control the virus. In a statement the group said:

‘These threats make it harder for those who came into contact with a virus carrier to report themselves due to fears of getting outed.’

Moreover, health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho warned that ‘leaking personal information of confirmed patients or spreading baseless rumors not only harms others but could be criminally punished’.

He also warned against homophobia and the spreading of ‘criticism and hate against a certain group to which the infection occurred’.

How contact tracing works in South Korea

Meanwhile South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged people to volunteer for testing urgently.

He said: ‘If you hesitate one day, our return to normal life may be paused for a month.’

Moreover, Mayor Park has promised ‘anonymous testing’ for those who have privacy concerns.

But he also warned that while officials wanted people to come forward voluntarily they may have to resort to ‘coercive measures’ as well.

Contact tracing of COVID-19 patients involves people who test positive reporting their movements. But it doesn’t stop there.

Officials also use surveillance camera records and credit card transactions, as well as GPS phone tracking. The latter is via the South Korea contact-tracing software Corona 100m, an app critics say has poor privacy protections.

The app enables health officials to issue alerts, about where infected people had been before their positive status was confirmed.

Privacy is key to coronavirus tracing success

However, the fact that an official has leaked this sensitive data to the media, in turn inspiring homophobia, undermines the efforts.

With multiple other countries hoping to use contact tracing to tackle the virus, South Korea provides an early warning.

Jo O’Reilly is digital privacy expert at She said:

‘The situation in South Korea serves as a stark warning. Although contact tracing apps may help to halt the spread of Covid-19, privacy must absolutely be a top priority.

‘A government can have the best intentions to protect the privacy of its citizens. But all it takes is one person with an agenda and access to that data to completely discredit that.

‘That is why data is best stored on a user’s device, rather than in a central server.’

O’Reilly warned that even anonymizing individuals data on the apps is not enough because that data can still pinpoint specific communities. And she added:

‘This poses a real risk that we could see similar scenes around the world wherever contact tracing apps fail to properly protect user and location data.

‘If other apps locate clusters of positive cases in gay bars or districts in cities around the world we could see this used this as an excuse to stigmatize the gay community as virus spreaders, or unclean.

‘In the worst-case scenario could see headlines reminiscent of the early days of the AIDS crisis.’