Drag queens at a parade in the Seoul district of Itaewon, where a new cluster of infections has emerged among gay night clubs. Photo: AFP

Concern is spreading across South Korea, where social distancing was officially relaxed this week, about a potential explosion of infections after a 31-year old man who tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday was found to have visited five bars and nightclubs last weekend.

By Friday morning, at least 14 of the man’s contacts had tested positive, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The man had visited the nightspots last weekend and some media suggested that as many as 2,000 people who had been at the venues could be at risk.

One of the man’s co-workers, at a company in Yongin, a county outside Seoul, has also tested positive. The company has reportedly been closed.

Anger against hedonistic behavior was roiling on social media Friday, as local infections had been dwindling. Adding further fuel to the fire was the issue that three of the clubs the man visited catered to gay people.

The man, who has not been identified, claimed in a comment published by local media EDaily that he was not gay, but had visited the clubs “out of curiosity.”

So far in the epidemic, few Korean voices have been raised over the intrusions into personal privacy that are implicit in the country’s highly effective contact-tracing system, which is enabled by the conglomeration of police, mobile phone and credit card databases.

But with sexual minorities in South Korea facing significant discrimination, some of those infected may be reluctant to come forward – or could be outed by contact tracing.

Where minorities gather

South Korea has managed its pandemic response without locking down cities – or even mandating the closure of nightlife zones. The Seoul district in which the five night clubs operate – Itaewon, a dense conglomeration of eateries, bars and clubs – has long had a nationwide reputation for being out of the mainstream.

Though it has gentrified in recent years, Itaewon was formerly known as a dubious locale where US soldiers patronized a bar and sex-worker infrastructure focused on the GI demographic. More recently, it has become known as the center for Seoul’s expanding foreign sub-communities – Western, African and Muslim.

But it has also provided a neutral space for domestic subcultures, notably LGBTs, where the broader strictures of conservative Korean society are relaxed.  

Early reaction on social media was aimed largely at hedonistic night clubbers indulging in risky enjoyment at a time of crisis and social distancing. But signs of prejudice were also apparent.

“Fire the gays!” said a post on popular portal Daum. “I was wondering who was hanging around and found that it was gays. Oh, that’s dirty,” was another comment on MBN TV’s report. “Thanks to this, I am going to hate gays,” wrote yet another netizen on YTN News.

“The concern here is that this plays into existing narratives of xenophobia and homophobia, as Itaewon represents a place of ‘otherness’ in terms of foreigners, prostitution and also the queer community,” said Michael Hurt, an American lecturer in culture theory at Korea National University of the Arts.

“All of these things overlap there … this could lead to very bad news in terms of social reaction.”

While Korea’s LGBT community has raised its profile in recent years, in a society imbued with Confucian mores and home to a number of fiery Protestant organizations, it also faces significant intolerance.  

Among the most notable attendees at Seoul’s annual Gay Pride Parade are groups of inflamed and largely middle-aged or elderly Christians, protesting the event and lambasting LGBT lifestyles.

Backlash

The ongoing case has reminded many of “Patient 31” – a worshipper at the Shincheonji Church, a Christian religious sect headquartered in the city of Daegu, which ignited South Korea’s first mass infection at the end of February.  

Shincheonji, which many consider a cult, was buffeted by nationwide criticism and rumors alleging the church was not cooperating with authorities. Church members said they faced discrimination and Shincheonji, which also had right-wing political connections, came under a legal assault from Seoul’s high-profile left-wing mayor, Park Won-soon.

The anger against Shincheonji gradually subsided after more clusters – at other churches, a Zumba class and a call center – sprang up. Moreover, authorities eventually mastered the wave of infections by deploying a widespread testing and contact-tracing regimen in what is now widely considered a global benchmark in pandemic control.

Currently, public Covid-19 messages run by the Korean government include pleas not to be prejudiced against those infected with the disease.

Seoul Mayor Park has not, so far, commented on the current case.

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