Could Korea's COVID-19 Tracing Be Used to Persecute Gays?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday May 11, 2020

Some nations have implemented tracing efforts to track and help contain instances of transmission in the COVID-19 pandemic. But those efforts at tracking people's movements come with a privacy cost - and in Korea, the possibility of big data being used to persecute gay men has reared its head, reports the Korea Herald.

Korea's gay population are now fearful of their personal data being misused to ID them as having gone to gay clubs, with the risk of being outed to friends, family, and employers being an implicit risk.

Reports the Korea Herald:

A 29-year-old man living in Yongin tested positive for COVID-19. He went clubbing in Itaewon, a party district in Seoul, when he had no symptoms, exposing at least 1,500 people to the virus. It was the first local infection in four days, triggering fears of further community spread.

But what did local media zero in on? The "gay club" aspect of the story, reports UK newspaper The Guardian.

Reported the Guardian:

Members of the gay community said they fear efforts to out them after a major media outlet, Kookmin Ilbo, reported that the man had been in gay clubs in the capital's Itaewon district. Some social media users then posted video footage from its bars and clubs, urging followers for donations "to help put a stop to these disgusting goings-on".

One Korean man told the Guardian that he fears the efforts of anti-gay individuals misappropriating location data, photos, and videos posted online could end up costing people like himself their jobs.

"The company where I work is a regular Korean company, which means they are very anti-gay," the man said.

Added the man: "If they find out that I was at a gay club, they would most likely tell me to leave under some other pretext or make my life there a living hell so I would have no choice but to leave."

The Guardian noted that being gay isn't a crime in Korea, but anti-LGBRQ sentiment is deeply rooted in Korean society.

Survivors of the 1980s and 1990s HIV epidemic have taken note of parallels between the AIDS crisis and the current COVID-19 pandemic in terms of stigma and a lack of timely government action. But there's another similarity emerging now: A reluctance among people who may have been exposed to the virus to get tested, because that could bring exposure of another sort: Being forced out of the closet.

The man who spoke with the Guardian explained this, saying:

""I'm extremely worried if I'm infected but I can't come forward to get tested because I don't want to lose my job. I don't care that much about getting the virus as I'll most likely be treated and get better eventually but I don't know if I'll be able to take the social and professional humiliation that would come with getting found out."

As with any virus, not getting tested means not knowing one's status in terms of being infected or not. That, in turn, can lead to more people being put at risk - and more people in turn after them.

HIV is far less transmissible than COVID-19. HIV can only be transmitted directly form person to person via bodily fluids like blood and semen, and an effective treatment regimen using anti-retrovirals can reduce the viral load of a person living with HIV to undetectable levels , making it impossible for them to pass the virus along to other people.

But the novel coronavirus is carried in droplets of moisture from coughing, sneezing, or even talking. Those droplets can settle on surfaces such as doorknobs or tabletops, where the virus can live for hours. People touching those surfaces can move the virus from their fingertips to their mouth, nose, or eyes by simply touching their face, and become infected as a result.

What's more, people infected with COVID-19 can remain asymptomatic for weeks - or never have very pronounced symptoms at all. Even so, they can be highly infectious to those around them.

That's why some nations have undertaken efforts to track the recent locations of infected people and determine whom they might have come into proximity with.

That kind of data gathering and analysis can all too easily be used for less noble purposes, however. And when that kind of data is combined with anti-LGBTQ sentiments, gays can quickly become targets on a whole new front: That of the pandemic, which already has many people on edge.

That sort of stigma can lead to scapegoating and a lack of overall comprehension when it comes to the scientific facts of the pandemic. Noted Sungkonghoe University's Choi Jin-bong, in comments to the Korea Herald, "For readers to get the whole picture, emphasizing whether the bars were for gays does not help. It rather disrupts the readers' understanding of the essential facts."

That's why media outlets in Korea have come in for criticism for emphasizing that a sick man was at a gay club.

As one man told the Korea Herald:

"It's just obvious that (the media are focusing on) the worst combination (gays and clubbing) to make LGBT people even more of a target of hatred."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Comments on Facebook