By Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean health authorities are investigating a small but growing coronavirus outbreak centred in a handful of Seoul nightclubs, seeking to keep infections in check as the country moves to less restrictive social distancing measures.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said on Friday at least 15 people have confirmed cases of the virus linked to the clubs in Itaewon, a neighbourhood popular with Koreans and foreigners in the city.
South Korea has reported only a handful of cases in recent days, the majority of them in people arriving from overseas. The nightclub infections, while still limited, are expected to increase, and come at a time when the country has eased some social distancing restrictions.
“These venues have all the dangerous conditions that we were the most concerned about,” KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong said on Friday, referring to crowding and ventilation issues.
“We think it is necessary to strengthen management for such facilities and we urge you to refrain from visiting such facilities as much as possible.”
Seoul city officials say they have a list of about 1,500 people who have visited the clubs, and more cases have been confirmed in other cities where the patients lived or travelled. Authorities have asked anyone who visited the clubs over the weekend to self isolate for 14 days and be tested.
The cluster of infections also raised controversy over the possible unintended side effects of South Korea’s invasive tracing and wide public disclosure of some patient information.
When several local media outlets identified the nightclubs as “gay clubs,” it sparked criticism the disclosures and media coverage could out lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer(LGBTQ) individuals against their will or lead to discrimination.
“Gay” and “Itaewon corona” were among the top trending terms on South Korea’s Naver web search portal following the reports.
Some social media users worried that fear of public disclosure could deter some club goers from being tested, and compared the cluster to the country’s largest outbreak, which infected thousands of members of a secretive church.
The reports included the age, gender, location and movements of the first individual who was tested positive after visiting those clubs, as well as the type of job he worked in, according to Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights in Korea, the nation’s largest rights group.
“It is not just unhelpful to disclose information of an individual’s movement for prevention efforts, but also a serious human rights violation that invades the individual’s privacy and has him outed to society,” the group said.
Some local media later ammended headlines, removing references to “gay bars” but did not make any official apologies.
Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, and there is growing public acceptance of LGBTQ relations.
Yet discrimination remains widespread and some gay people suffer hate crimes, rights advocates say.
To battle the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea has embraced a high-tech approach to contact tracing, which can include accessing a patient’s cell phone location data, CCTV footage, credit card statements, and other information.
Automated cell phone alerts are then sent to anyone suspected of having been in the same area as the confirmed case, with health authorities often disclosing details on the patient’s gender, age, whereabouts and sometimes workplace in an effort to track new cases.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)