The Coronavirus Outbreak and South Korea’s Treatment of its Chinese Minority
Foreign Correspondent in Korea, Milana Nikolova, explains the coronavirus situation in Korea and the implications for the Chinese population.
The novel coronavirus, now termed Covid-19, has been consistently making headlines on a daily basis worldwide for weeks. As of now, the new disease has infected 43,100 people in twenty eight countries, and caused over 1,100 deaths including one in the Philippines. The previously unknown coronavirus has spread so rapidly that on the January 31 the World Health Organisation decided it was time to declare a Global Health Emergency.
These facts appear worrying at first, especially for those of us completing our study abroad year in East Asia. However, despite the seemingly endless media coverage and discussions of the virus, for those residing outside China the chances of actually contacting it remains rather low. Of the more than 40,000 cases, under four hundred have been confirmed outside of the country.
Even if falling ill with the new coronavirus remains unlikely, public fears have resulted in a growing animosity against people who are perceived as being more likely to carry the virus. While such response has been observed in numerous places around the world, unfortunately, I have noticed a similar reaction in South Korean society as well. Poor treatment of victims and potential victims can be seen in the manner in which some Koreans reacted to their fellow countrywomen and men being evacuated from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and the surrounding Hubei Province. Even The Telegraph reported on the protests in Asan, South Korea. The close to four-hundred evacuated Koreans have been quarantined at a facility near the small town, which threw many of the locals into panic, causing them to throw eggs at officials and to block roads leading to the town with tractors.
So, I feel like many people rationalize their dislike of the Chinese by focusing on the coronavirus.
Without a doubt, however, the biggest victims of the coronavirus scare have been the Chinese residents of South Korea. Reports on the size of the Chinese community in the country vary, with different sources reporting the number being somewhere between half a million and over a million. Either way, there is a consensus that the group represents South Korea’s largest ethnic minority. According to the Asia and Oceania based NGO Minority Rights Group,while Chinese residents come from varied backgrounds, a large number are likely young migrants engaged in low-skilled and low-payed jobs, often suffering from discrimination and overall poor treatment at the workplace. Such attitudes have immensely magnified as the perceived threat of the virus spread.
A Korean co-worker, employed at an embassy, shared with me how she witnessed commuters on the Seoul Metro becoming visibly frightened after a Chinese family boarded the train, “many started whispering and moved aside to avoid the young family, some who were accompanying children got off immediately”. This experience is mirrored in a story, which went viral on South Korean social media, after a user uploaded a photo of a man, who was reportedly Chinese, collapsing on the floor of a busy Seoul metro station. The post caused what could be described by some as mass hysteria, until a spokesperson of the metro made it clear that the man had simply passed out from drinking. It is highly unlikely that the photo would have received so much attention, if the individual in question was Korean.
While finding Chinese students willing to discuss the issue proved difficult, I was able to ask a Korean university student about her opinion on the treatment of Chinese people in South Korean society in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak: “I could say people justify xenophobia with their concern for the coronavirus. Sixty thousand people sent a petition to the Blue House (the President’s official residence), asking to ban the entry of all Chinese people to Korea. Such people get upset (over) why the Korean government should treat the Chinese patients who are in Korea. They don’t think about the opposite case. In 2015 when MERS was spread in Korea, none of the countries denied the entry of Koreans. Also (the) Chinese government paid lots of money to cure the Korean MERS patient who was in China at the time. So, I feel like many people rationalize their dislike of the Chinese by focusing on the coronavirus.”
In what for many are increasingly scary times, it is important to keep our humanity and compassion as we continue to look for a long term solution.
Chinese people are not only South Korea’s most numerous minority group, they also represent the largest percentage of foreign students in the country. As the new academic year here is set to begin in the beginning of March, roughly 70,000 students are expected to arrive from China, according to The Korea Times. The same paper points out that a number of universities with high numbers of Chinese students have decided to postpone the beginning of this year’s spring semester. With such unprecedented actions being taken as a response to the virus, the treatment that Chinese students could receive upon eventual return is worrying to say the least.
Overall, while China, South Korea and most of the international community are working together to find a solution to the epidemic, what could potentially hinder efforts to contain the disease is the growing panic and finger pointing that has unfortunately occurred in many societies around the globe, including in Korea. In what for many are increasingly scary times, it is important to keep our humanity and compassion as we continue to look for a long term solution.
Regarding precautions against coronavirus, the up-to-date advice from Public Health England (PHE) is for those who have travelled from Wuhan in the last fourteen days is to stay indoors, avoid contact with other people and to call NHS 111 to inform them of recent travel to the city. In addition to this, PHE are advising those who have travelled from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau to the UK in the last fourteen days and develop symptoms of cough, fever or shortness of breath, to immediately: stay indoors and avoid contact with other people (as you would with the flu) and call NHS 111 to inform them of your recent travel. PHE are asking people to follow the advice above even if their symptoms are minor.