South Korea is experiencing a marked increase in online threats and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who are being unfairly accused of spreading Covid-19.
The backlash illustrates the need for governments to move proactively to stop the scapegoating of minority groups as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.
The government began to relax restrictions in early May, citing a decline in new Covid-19 cases, and permitted bars and other venues to reopen. In the days that followed, dozens of new Covid-19 cases appeared, linked to nightclubs in Itaewon, where authorities estimate that 5,700 people may have been exposed to the virus.
Some media initially described the nightclubs as gay clubs, setting off a firestorm of online harassment and intimidation targeting LGBT people.
The backlash has exacerbated the already high levels of hostility LGBT people in South Korea face. Queer culture festivals and other LGBT events continue to be regularly targeted for closure, threatened, and harassed and marred by physical violence.
In addition to the persistent failure to tackle LGBT discrimination, the government’s response to the outbreak raises serious privacy concerns. As part of tracing efforts, authorities have disclosed personal information about people who have tested positive for Covid-19, including specific details like age, gender, and workplace. Others have tried to use those details to identify infected individuals, putting them at risk of discrimination and harassment.
If the government fails to counter the high levels of stigma around LGBT issues it may make it less likely that individuals who were exposed in the current outbreak will come forward, compromising the effectiveness of public health measures. The mayor of Seoul has said those exposed who do not come forward for testing will be visited at home accompanied by police, putting them at risk of discrimination and speculation about their sexuality as a result of their association with the outbreak.
South Korea’s government must be mindful of human rights in combatting Covid-19 – including the rights of groups who are vulnerable to discrimination.
Authorities have warned against disclosing public information about those who test positive for Covid-19, but stronger measures are needed. The government should emphasize that Covid-19 can be controlled without infringing rights to privacy and warn those using the pandemic to attack LGBT persons online and in social media that such actions sow discord and will only undermine the solidarity needed to overcome the pandemic.