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South Korea's Tracking Of COVID-19 Patients Raises Privacy Concerns


South Korea's approach to the coronavirus has been widely praised. It relies on widespread testing and information to trace the routes of infection. A drawback to that approach is the social stigma that patients often face. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, that shame can be worse than the infection.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Every COVID-19 patient in South Korea is assigned a number. Patient No. 15, for example, traveled from Wuhan, China, in January. Soon after that, he tested positive for the virus. While under self-quarantine, he shared a meal with his sister-in-law, who also became infected. Speculation erupted on Korean social media that the two were having an extramarital affair. Privacy advocate Oh Byoung-il finds this troubling.

OH BYOUNG-IL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "We're concerned," he says, "about whether the amount of personal information that's currently being disclosed is enough or too much."

We know about patient 15 because South Korean health authorities legally use cellphone data, credit card histories and surveillance cameras to trace infection routes. The government posts data, including patients' age, gender, nationality and occupation, online and sends it to residents via cellphone alerts. Residents who think that they may have been near an infected person are supposed to self-isolate or get tested for COVID-19. Oh Byoung-il's civic group, the Korean Progressive Network, has called on the government to release less personal information.

OH: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "If someone gets infected by sharing a meal with a patient, then sharing the meal is the actionable information here," he says. "That the two people are brother- and sister-in-law is not important." All people need to know, he argues, is that they were in the same place at the same time as an infected person. The rest does not matter. The fear is that what are supposed to be neutral data points about infected persons becomes speculation about motives and morals. Patients can then be blamed for getting or spreading a disease and shunned by society, says Kim Myoung-hee with the Seoul-based nonprofit People's Health Institute.

KIM MYOUNG-HEE: (Through interpreter) Many people said they felt like they themselves had become the pathogen, and it hurt them to feel other people avoiding them even after they had recovered.

KUHN: Kim adds that sending out information on infected persons is part of the government's attempt to be transparent. Stigmatization is an unintended side effect.

M KIM: (Through interpreter) If criticism becomes too much, people will avoid getting tested. And when infected people go into hiding, controlling the outbreak will be much harder.

KUHN: She says that stigmatization often takes the form of discrimination towards minorities such as the Joseonjok, ethnic Koreans from China. Kim Sook-ja is a Joseonjok entrepreneur who runs restaurants serving Chinese cuisine in Seoul. She says locals have unfairly associated her eatery with the virus.

KIM SOOK-JA: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "I heard people on the street," she says, "saying out loud, oh, this is a Chinese restaurant, so we better avoid it." Kim says in her defense that she hasn't been in China in years and she's really just the same as other Koreans.

Paik Jong-woo with the Korean Neuropsychiatric Association offers counseling to COVID-19 patients. He argues that South Koreans have cooperated with government measures to combat the virus without the use of lockdowns.

PAIK JONG-WOO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Even though Korean society is industrialized," he says, "we still consider interpersonal relationships more important than individuals, so we try to avoid actions that harm others." The downside, he says, is that anyone seemed to be out of line with the majority can be stigmatized.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG LAZY'S "EXIT TUCSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.