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Korean Government Mandates Covid Testing For Foreigners

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Update: As of March 19, “the Seoul city government on Friday withdrew an order requiring mandatory coronavirus testing for all foreign workers after facing criticism from foreigners, medical workers and the human rights commission.” (Korea Herald)

On March 16, the Korean government set a new precedent by mandating Covid19 testing for all employed foreigners in the Seoul and Gyeonggi areas.

Driving the news: The decision was made based on a recent outbreak among foreign migrant workers and uptick in the proportion of total Covid19 cases attributable to foreigners.

  • Many migrant workers in the Gyeonggi-do area surrounding Seoul are thought to be illegal immigrants without documentation and thus a reluctance to seek medical attention and testing.
  • These migrant workers often live in cramped, one-room dormitories that serve as hotbeds of infection and transmission of coronavirus. Authorities fear that the recent outbreak could spiral out of control without direct intervention.

As a result: Over 85,000 foreign workers living and working in Gyeonggi-do were initially mandated to take Covid19 tests.

  • This was quickly followed up on March 16th with the directive that all Seoul foreigner workers must also be tested, which adds hundreds of thousands to be tested.
  • Numerous reports online by foreigners who tried to get tested on Monday, March 15th state that lines were up to 5 hours long with insufficient staff and crowded queues without proper social distancing.
  • The deadline is March 22 and there is a fine of 3 million KRW if one refuses to be tested.

What they’re saying: Foreigners are showing fierce resistance and are crying foul over apparent hypocrisy on behalf of the Korean government.

  • Initially, Covid19 was in the mere single digits in Korea, until a massive outbreak at a religious cult called the Shinjeonji Church. Since then, there have been numerous and repeated outbreaks at churches and religious centers, but the Korean government has refused to impose any testing mandates due to the political power churches hold here.
  • Data from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (질병관리청) here show that cluster outbreak numbers attributed to bathhouses and saunas are far higher than that of the Gyeonggi-do outbreak, which occurred in Dongducheon from March 1-12 (n = 167).
Major local clusters in Korea | March 13, 2021
Major local clusters in Korea | March 13, 2021
Major local clusters in Korea | March 15, 2021
Major local clusters in Korea | March 15, 2021
  • Yet, saunas and bathhouses were specifically passed over regarding restrictions and allowed to keep operating because they are frequented by the economically vulnerable as well as the older population, which is a massive voting bloc.
  • In Spring 2020, an outbreak at a gay nightclub in a popular clubbing district in Seoul caused a storm of anti-gay and anti-foreigner backlash, even though the area is very popular with Koreans and most of the cases were actually attributed to Koreans.

The Korean take: Comments by Korean netizens are sympathetic to foreigners, with many citing the reality that the majority of cases are transmitted by Koreans and citing the highly polarizing role churches has played in spreading the virus.

Yes, but: The Korean government cites clear numbers showing that the proportion of foreigner Covid19 cases is outstripping their proportion of the total population, which is 4.9%.

  • The government’s position is that testing is free and needed to clamp down on any possibility of another outbreak.

What to look for: Although it is technically illegal for foreigners in Korea to politically organize or protest, many are expressing their desire to petition the Korean government via their online petition portal.

Bottomline: Foreigners in Korea are becoming increasingly wary of being scapegoated throughout the Covid19 pandemic as vectors of transmission when Koreans are not subjected to the same treatment. However, the Korean government is showing its stance that it will preemptively stamp out any possibility of outbreaks.


Notes on data collection:

Finding the number of foreigner cases was not exactly hard, but it was annoying and time-consuming. Simply put, the Korean government does not regularly nor clearly publish data on foreigner cases in Korea. I only found one instance and it wasn’t in the English materials. I had to look at EVERY day from the past few months, as they do not publish it regularly.

English press releases located here only mention cluster numbers, whereas the Korean versions located here give detailed breakdowns of clusters’ locations, circumstances, and family member transmissions in addition to numbers.

So, the data availability is very limited for non-Korean reading foreigners.

Even in their Korean press releases, no specific information on foreigner numbers is released, at least regularly. I only caught it by accident on March 15, 2021, in which they mention “주별 국내발생 외국인 확진 현황(’20.11.1일~‘21.3.13일) 붙임 참조” (Status of confirmed foreigner cases by Week, Nov 11 2020 – March 13, 2021. See attachment)

This is the only instance of foreigner Covid19 data in Korea I could find all the way back to Dec, 2020.

I am not eliminating the possibility foreigner data have been published regularly elsewhere. But I couldn’t find it on the KCDC and KDCA sites.

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