By Regina Sears

This last month on March 8th, 2021, the Seoul and Gyeonggi Provincial governments mandated all foreign workers in South Korea to receive COVID-19 tests. Although some state that this was an essential policy implemented to protect South Korean nationals from the widespread virus, others disclose that this controversial act rooted from xenophobic intentions.

According to the Gyeonggi Provincial Order 2021-5268, all foreign workers were to receive COVID-19 tests during 8th through the 22nd of March at their local COVID-19 testing centers. While some cheered loudly to this policy, others were enraged at the possible discriminatory mindset rooted within the Korean governmental system.

Some spoke out about this controversy. Graham Nelson, British Embassy’s Political & Public Affairs Counsellor to Korea, expressed his thoughts on his Twitter on March 18th. “Coronavirus and discrimination are both fatal diseases… [The virus] does not take ethnicity or race into mind. Working environments which encourage the spread of the coronavirus should be targeted instead of race… It’s my personal opinion, but it’s hard to view this as scientific or considerate” (Translated directly from @GrahamNelsonUK on Twitter).

Similarly, Miss Darcy Lockman, music teacher at ICSU, who has been affected by the policy herself, speaks about this issue as well. “When the government sent out a notification,  I felt pretty frustrated, even angry. Not only did this give rise to people treating us like we were diseased somehow, but it was also a disruption to our work and time.” She continues, “I also know of people married to Koreans where the foreigner needed to get tested but not their spouse– how did this make any sense? All in all, the experience was not only unfair, but targeted foreigners with no clear reason except discrimination.”

On the contrary, some reacted with approval to the opinions given above. From data retrieved from various Korean media sources, some nationals state that the policy was in fact a technical and administrative solution given to a rapid outbreak in areas with high foreign populations. Instead of being outright discriminatory, some believe that the mandate was simply given to reduce COVID-19 cases concerned with foreign individuals residing within the country. While it is easier for the government to track COVID-19 cases originating from Korean patients, the government has limited control on foreigners, which might have brought such administrative decisions to be made. 

Many estimate that this policy was implemented to track illegal immigrants residing within the country. According to the official document presented by the Gyeonggi Provincial government, clause three of the administrative order indicates specifically that illegal immigrants are also required to be tested for COVID-19. The order also included having employers verify that their foreign workers received COVID tests, creating an additional possibility that the policy acted to investigate unethical or illegal employment regarding foreign workers. On top of these ideas, some nationals stated that it is Koreans’ taxes invested towards these tests and that it was an unnecessary expense incurred by the government. 

After being announced, the policy immediately stirred controversies, with various opinions emerging from different groups; however, there is no definite answer on what the policy intended to bring forth. Apart from the issue posed in Korea, what policies should countries offer in such a unique time period in recent history? While Korean COVID casese peaked back in December, the current spread of the virus is reduced. With the vaccine on the way, would discriminatory controversies still occur in the country even after COVID-19? The struggle still continues.