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South Korea looked like it had everything under control. Infection and death rates from the coronavirus were dropping, and the country’s economy was slowly reopening.
Then, on May 1, a 29-year-old man visited five bars and clubs in Itaewon, one of Seoul’s most popular nightlife districts.
Last Wednesday the man tested positive for coronavirus, and now, authorities are frantically trying to track down 11,000 people who may have been exposed in a desperate bid to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
On Tuesday the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) confirmed that it had already identified 102 infections linked to the bars and clubs, but it was urging all others who may have been in the areas late on May 1 or the early hours of May 2 to get tested.
Authorities said that 73 people in the cluster of cases had visited the Itaewon area that night, while another 29 received secondary infections through contact with those who were in the area. There have been no reports of tertiary infections.
The KCDC said it is investigating a time window from April 24, when businesses in the Itaewon area started opening, to May 2, when the symptoms started appearing.
City officials had initially tried to track those who visited the bars and clubs in question by using entry logs from the premises. But that method proved ineffective because some of the names turned out to be false.
One reason there was false information in the logs is that at least one of the clubs the man visited was an LGBT club. While attitudes toward homosexuality have improved in South Korea in recent years, it remains a highly conservative country where homophobic sentiment is common.
In the wake of media reports that the man visited a gay club, people flooded social media with anti-gay slurs, blaming the man and those at the club for endangering the country’s fight against the pandemic.
Amnesty International on Tuesday hit out at some of the media coverage of the incident, saying “stirring up hatred and branding a certain group is the biggest obstacle to effective disease prevention.”
The government is now offering anonymous testing in a bid to ensure those who visited the clubs come forward.
In February, South Korea became one of the first countries outside China to report a significant spike in infections, and through a widespread track, trace, and test approach, the country managed to get its infection rate under control. But the latest spike in cases shows how difficult it is to control the spread of the virus once strict lockdown measures have been lifted.
Authorities in Seoul are now using other methods to track possible infections.
Using location data from cell phone operators, Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon said the city has secured a list of 10,905 visitors in the area. Those identified have received text messages in English and Korean urging them to go through virus screening.
The city has also gathered the credit card information of almost 500 people who were in the area during the time period under investigation.
The authorities say that so far, 7,000 people have contacted them and been tested.
Cover: People wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (Im Hwa-young/Yonhap via AP)