South Korea has an advanced medical system, a free press and a strong culture of public accountability, and Seoul’s foreign minister says the government has stressed transparency when tackling the public health crisis.
But even a health ministry civil servant could not avoid online bullying after contracting the virus.
The municipal government of Sejong — where the ministry is based — revealed that she took gym classes taught by an infected instructor, as well as a detailed breakdown of her daily schedule.
Most online comments slammed her as “irresponsible” for going to a gym during the outbreak, but others picked on items such as her lunch hours, saying they were too long for a civil servant and accused her of “slacking off”.
The government’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters was forced to step in to defend her, saying her gym visits took place before authorities advised people to avoid public gatherings and adopt social distancing.
“Excessive attacks and indiscriminate accusations against those infected will not only greatly hurt the individual, but will also impede prevention activities,” it said.
A Seoul National University study has since shown South Koreans were more afraid of being “criticized” should they get infected, than the virus itself.
There was a “delicate balance” between risk, information and privacy, said Jason Farley, a nurse practitioner and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.
Simpler releases listing an infected person’s locations between certain dates would be sufficient, he told AFP, but the details being made public were leading to “significant stigma, discrimination and, in some cases, threats to individuals known to have COVID-19.
“This behavior is unacceptable and should be discouraged.”