As of 16 October, South Korea appears to have successfully avoided the worst of Covid-19. After the first recorded case on 20 January, a rapid spike following ‘Patient 31’ on 18 February warned the world about the consequences of lack of social distancing and self-isolation. The peak daily case count reached 909 on 29 February and by early March, South Korea followed China as the second most infected country. It experienced many of the same difficulties as other countries, including a serious shortage of healthcare staff and protective equipment. The government was criticised for not taking more stringent action more quickly, for example imposing a blanket travel ban from China, or closing down the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect associated with the ‘Patient 31’ case cluster. However, by 12 March the number of new daily cases had fallen to below 200 and in general, continued to decline until a cluster in mid-August. Media reporting linked this spike to attendance of an anti-government rally by members of the Sarang Jeil Church. Following a jump to 441 new cases on 26 August, the number of new daily cases has generally declined. As of 16 October, 73 new daily cases were recorded, taking the total to 25,108. The death count is below 500. This is a staggeringly small number compared to the UK, which has a similar population size but has seen 689,000 cases and over 43,000 deaths.
A combination of factors explains South Korea’s success, including extensive use of surveillance technologies, rapid introduction of regulations enabling small and medium-sized companies to produce testing kits and avoiding the worst of worldwide shortages of PPE. The test system has been described as an ‘excellent example of tight coordination of public-private partnership and publicization of innovative technology’. Much was based on experience from the MERS outbreak in 2015. For example, the Epidemiological Investigation Support System, which uses credit cards and smartphone data to track and trace contacts, relies on personal data collection laws introduced following MERS.
These various factors have all had gendered impacts and this article will explain four ways in which women have been particularly impacted by Covid-19.
First, more women than men have contracted Covid-19 (although women have also consistently experienced a lower fatality rate – as of 29 September, 53% of deaths have been men and 47% women). Disaggregating data by sex is widely understood as fundamental to effective health responses. It enables an understanding of diseases’ varied effects and creates equitable interventions. Without understanding the ratio of infected men and women, ‘lifesaving and economy-saving clues’ are left on the table. However, as of 5 May, South Korea was one of just three countries in Asia that had shared complete data on infections and mortality by sex. The national data shows that women have consistently accounted for a higher proportion of Covid-19 cases than men, although the gap has narrowed. While on 19 March, 62% of infected people were women and 38% were men, by 29 September, the gap tightened with women accounting for 54% of infections and men for 46%. Given that more men are infected than woman globally, this indicates that we should consider why women have been more vulnerable in the South Korean context.
This can be understood with reference to the second way in which South Korean women have been impacted by Covid-19 – their increased vulnerability due to the gendered division of labour. Across the world, women make up 70% of the health workforce. Numbers in South Korea are even higher. Women make up 95.8% of registered nurses and 94% of paid care-workers. These healthcare professionals have not been adequately protected – prompting, for example, the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union to issue a statement in March urging the government to ensure proper protective equipment for care workers. In South Korea, almost 80% of cases have been linked to cluster infections. Working women are at the heart of these clusters. As pointed out by Kim et al. (2020), local epicentres of Covid-19, including a religious community, public rental apartments, a call centre and nursing facilities, are mostly female-dominated spaces. Kim and Kim offer the interesting argument that the ‘masculine narrative’ employed by the South Korean government to fight Covid-19 – with slogans like ‘Corona cannot defeat Korea’ – also contributed to women’s higher vulnerability to Covid-19. Frontline workers – many of them women – have been presented as heroes, rather than being protected from overwork and self-sacrifice. The impact of social distancing measures may have also hit women hardest. In a country where 45% of women work in temporary employment, compared to 29% of men, the loss of jobs for temporary workers has cost women a higher price.
Third, in line with the impact across the world, South Korean women have faced a disproportionate care burden. UN Women has noted that where healthcare systems are stretched, care responsibilities frequently fall onto women and girls. South Korea was already ranked 127 out of 155 states for women’s economic participation for 2020 by the World Economic Forum. A 2015 report said that Korean women spent 259 minutes per week on household and family care work, compared to 50 minutes spent by their male spouses. South Korean schools have been closed intermittently during the pandemic. It is therefore highly likely that the responsibility for caring for children out of school, and elderly relatives whose usual capacity to access healthcare was limited by Covid-19, has fallen to women. There were some government initiatives to acknowledge and compensate for the extra burden of care. For instance, working parents whose close relatives had Covid-19 symptoms were given up to five days of childcare leave if their children were at home, paid 50,000 won (USD 40) per day. However, like the US, Korea has no generally applicable statutory obligations for employers to continue wage payments in case of illness and does not provide for statutory public sickness benefits. Moreover, there is little evidence of measures targeted at women.
The final impact relates to South Korea’s extensive use of surveillance technologies. Although the capacity to track infected peoples’ contacts and protect further infection has undoubtedly been essential to battling the virus around the world, there has been insufficient consideration of how intrusions into personal privacy have different impacts depending on an individual’s social status and positioning. Some in South Korea have questioned the utility of making public detailed information about infected people’s movements, given the extreme social stigma it has generated. Grassroots health network, the People’s Health Movement Korea, has highlighted rising concerns over privacy and human rights violations. Surveillance has had specific impacts for groups including sexual minorities, sex workers and illegal immigrants, as the disclosure of private information can endanger their security. There has been some recognition of this by the government – in Chungbuk province, for example, undocumented migrants could get tested without the risk of deportation – but there remains more to be done.
As has happened all over the world, Covid-19 has exposed South Korea’s existing fault-lines. The disproportionate number of women working in precarious and vulnerable situations, the burden of care that rests economically and culturally on their shoulders, and the potential impact of social surveillance on women who already face social stigma, all serve as a reminder of how long-term societal ills complicate and undermine an effective national Covid-19 response. Considering the gender-blindness of the response to the MERS outbreak in 2015 (S Kim and J-H. Kim point out that there was not a single mention of the word ‘gender’ in the 500-word government white paper reviewing the response), South Korea would do well to build-in more recognition of the gendered impacts of Covid-19 this time around.