Emergency Alerts for COVID-19 in South Korea

This article is part of the series:

[Mapo District] The 15th confirmed case occurred (return from overseas, Sangsu-dong). For more info, please check on our website and blog. 

[Yeongdeungpo District] The 22nd Corona case confirmed. District resident case (female in her 20s, returned from the U.S., Yeoui-dong). For more details, visit the district’s website. 

[Seodaemun District] 3.29. (Sunday) One more COVID 19 case confirmed (Namgaza 2-dong, returned from Europe). For more details, please check the website. 

[Gangseo District] The movements of a confirmed person (other district resident, in his 70s, male) with Corona notified in Gangseo district. Offices were disinfected. Please check the blog for more details.  

[Seongbuk District] The 20th case (male, born in 1973) confirmed. Cared for his father (who was admitted to the 8th floor of Uijeongbu Mary Hospital). For more details on his movements, check our website.

I have received many emergency messages like these since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in South Korea in January 20. These text alerts were all sent out by district offices of the Seoul Metropolitan Government notifying me of newly confirmed cases near my location. District offices, local governments, and the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters (CDSCHQ) have used their discretion in sending out what they perceive to be essential information for an emergency response, and their self-regulating but aligned efforts have created a huge information stream. According to the emergency anddisaster information portal run by the Ministry of Interior and Safety, in one month’s time between 10 March and 10 April, 3,707 alerts were sent out across the country. 

These are real-time alerts using a cell broadcasting system. It means that people who have a smartphone within a certain parameter will receive a text messages automatically with an alarm notification unless their notification setting is turned off.[1] Although its use rapidly increased this year, this system is not new. An emergency text alert system has been operating in South Korea for almost a decade and is now firmly part of everyday life. People are warned of earthquakes, floods, heat waves, and fire hazards during dry weather through this system, and spring is the season for recurrent emergency messages about high levels of fine dust. However, there has been no need for this kind of alert this year, because air quality has dramatically improved after the COVID-19 outbreak in China. 

As the outbreak continued much longer than expected and the number of new cases in South Korea decreases, from about 900 at the end of February to 39 reported April 9, public anxiety about the pandemic dissipated. The number of alerts has been substantially decreasing throughout April, yet the warnings continue as the period of social distancing is extended, with some variations. For instance, the alert on Friday afternoon at 4:00 suggests that I go home, skipping after-work drinks. The Sunday morning 9:00 alert tells me to stay at home again and not to partake in group gatherings, including religious meetings. Lockdowns have not been implemented in South Korea, and it indeed remains up to me whether I want to grab a beer with my friends or go for a Sunday picnic. These time-tailored messages create a moment in whichthe abstract notions of freedom, civic duty, and recklessness are sensitized or trivialized through numbing repetition. 

Receiving such alerts feels invasive and reassuring at the same time. In a way, they assure me that the situation is under control. While the style of these text messages is dry and monotonous, they deliver a lively story of achievements: new cases arrive from overseas, but are traced; the movements of an infected person are checked thoroughly across different districts; and active contact tracing and isolation is being carried out to curtail any further spread from those with confirmed infections. These messages tend to be minimalistic, disclosing only the infected person’s area of residence, gender, and age, yet they still offer a rich context of inequality and social maneuverings. The geography of wealth in the country has to be reinterpreted with new front lines of contamination; gender and age are not mere categories but fertile loci of blame and responsibility.

The most uneasy part is that although personal identifying information is not published in these messages, the suggested websites and blogs provide details about where the infected persons have been and at what time. In some cases, it is known that people’s credit card transactions were checked to verify their statements and closed-circuit television footage from elevators, pharmacies, restaurants, and office buildings were requested to confirm whether the infected person wore a mask or not. 

Using these surveillance techniques for public health emergencies inevitably blurs the lines between policing and prevention. Queer communities and human rights groups with whom I have worked closely for many years are rightly concerned, indeed terrified, both about the current effects and the potential long-term consequences of this new public health regime. Contact tracing is a necessary measure, but this is a completely different level of surveillance, one that we have never before experienced. Given that we are still struggling with the adverse consequences of laws that criminalize HIV non-disclosure, exposure, and transmission, the significance of this new culture of transparency and public announcement is overwhelming. The painful history of the HIV epidemic in South Korea has already shown that the stigmatization and discrimination of the infected is exacerbated when viral transmission is assumed as something for which individuals can and should be held responsible. 

Yet, the real difficulty here is that simply condemning the paranoid attitudes of state authorities will not lead to an alternative. At this stage, this verification process does not intend to punish the infected person, and a pragmatic approach is much emphasized more than the logic of penalization. The contract tracing and verification process cannot solely rely on a traditional interview method any longer and requires the active work of coordinating various electronic data sources that the IT industry has stored and has already made available for inspection. In addition, this kind of intimate verification process has proved its effectiveness in restoring the symbolic order of social purity. For instance, if CCTV footage confirms that both a pharmacist and an infected person wore masks at the time of contact, there is no need to close the pharmacy or put the pharmacist in self-isolation. With this thorough checking, the provision of essential services can continue. Nonetheless, again, it is hard to deny that these pinpoint measures are planting seeds of anxiety, self-discipline, and accusation. 

When everyone’s phones are beeping at the same time in offices, subway trains, and buses, regardless of the content, the message is loud and clear: It is a time of crisis, so we are all warned together. While this novel virus can sometimes present no symptoms, emergency alerts have become a physical mode of knowing, relating, and attending to this state of emergency in South Korea. The verification procedures that back up these alerts also confirm that the old binary between liberal values of personal privacy and authoritarian control cannot be sustained any longer. This new pandemic is rapidly changing public understandings and feelings of individuality, privacy, responsibility, transmissibility, and the common fate. 

Sometimes I feel an eerie calm in the silence following an alert message. The first person who died of COVID-19 in South Korea was a 63-year-old man who had been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for more than 20 years. One hundred and two psychiatric patients were found to be infected in this hospital; nine of them have already passed away. Did they receive any alerts on this new pandemic? I have received many, but yet no invitation to mourn the incalculable loss. 

Bo Kyeong Seo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Yonsei University. Her research focuses on universal health coverage, politics of care, HIV stigma, and queer death. She has carried out ethnographic research in Thailand and South Korea, and her first book, Eliciting Care: Health and Power in Northern Thailand, will be published in June 2020. 

[1] For a short summary of how this alert system and other measures adopted in South Korea, see: https://www.undp.org/content/seoul_policy_center/en/home/presscenter/articles/2019/korea_s-rapid-innovations-in-the-time-of-covid-19.html

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