South Korea nightclub coronavirus outbreak shines light on LGBT+ protection

SEOUL, May 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Swift efforts by South Korea to limit a backlash against LGBT+ people after new coronavirus cases were linked to nightclubs catering to the community have sparked hopes for better protection.

After weeks of nearly no new domestic cases, the country saw a spike in infections this week linked to Seoul nightclubs and bars, many of them catering to LGBT+ people in a country where homosexuality remains taboo.

That prompted a surge in anti-gay comments online, but the government responded with a slew of measures to protect the privacy of people coming forward for testing.

“I hope the government will consider more measures for (the) LGBT+ community in the future after this incident,” said Kim, a gay university graduate, who is self-isolating after he went to some of the bars linked to the outbreak.

“The government has quickly... realised that discriminating and criticising will not do any good in containing the virus,” the 38-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Kim declined to give his full name to protect his privacy.

Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea and there is growing public acceptance of LGBT+ relations.

Yet some LGBT+ people suffer hate crime and say they face discrimination, including job loss and hate speech.

LGBT+ campaigners have called for anti-discrimination laws and health support services to protect the community.

About 150 cases have been linked to the outbreak from the clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon nightlight district, including clubgoers as well as secondary infections in family members, co-workers, and students.

Health authorities have introduced an anonymous testing system in light of the new cases and said they would revise their practice of publicising the travel routes of coronavirus patients.

Kwon Jun-wook, deputy director of the government’s Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said “stigma and discrimination will only hide patients”.

The latest cases have pushed up the number of gay people concerned about losing jobs seeking counselling from charities, but it has slowed after the government’s action.

“Many people were seeking advice about self-isolating and how or what to say to their employers,” said Lee Jong-geol, the director of Chingusai, a Seoul-based LGBT+ rights group which is now working with local authorities to provide counselling.

“I hope there will be more cooperation with the government from now on to help the LGBT+ community,” he said.

Others said they hoped the government’s coronavirus action would prompt wider discussion about better LGBT+ protection.

“People are scared to get tested because they are scared of being outed. All we want is a normal life,” said Jeong, a gay bar tender who is self-isolating after tested negative. He asked not to be named in full.

South Korea suffered the first major coronavirus outbreak outside China but has been held up as a mitigation success story, with intensive testing and contact tracing.

It has typically released information like a patient’s age, gender, and places visited immediately before testing positive, as well as in some cases, patients’ last names and general occupations.