The recent coronavirus pandemic, which first appeared in Wuhan Province during December 2019, caused a nationwide shutdown of the country’s numerous travel and trade routes in the following months. Despite attempts by the Chinese government to control the crisis, the virus quickly spread to nearby nations. With an incubation period of up to 27 days, medical professionals were under-equipped to combat the disease; many had expected it to have a contagiousness relative to that of SARS, which had an incubation period of a mere two to seven days. Moreover, in recent weeks, the title of “country with second-largest number of coronavirus infectees”—which had previously been held by Thailand—has been handed to South Korea, which saw a jump from less than 100 infectees to upwards of 7000 patients within two weeks.
“I distinctly remember going to a cafe nearby my house last Friday, and seeing a lot of people there,” said Paul Kim (12), avid cafe-goer. “Now, when I pass by the same cafe, there are at most four to five customers there, and everyone is wearing a mask. Moreover, most of the shops and restaurants in the area are closed, with the exception of chain brands such as Mcdonald’s and Mom’s Touch. Before, as I had only heard about the coronavirus in a television screen, I had not perceived it to be such a serious threat, but after seeing the drastic effects it had on my neighborhood, I realized the true extent of this crisis. Additionally, I heard that the sixth confirmed infectee in Songpa-gu went to multiple Starbucks stores during the virus’s incubation period, which both surprised and concerned me.”
Another unusual aspect of the spread of the coronavirus in South Korea stems from the fact that a large number of the infectees have been identified as members of the Shincheonji cult. Based in Daegu, this religious group has branched off into other countries such as the United States, Australia, and China. With a massive following of approximately 240,000 people, the cult has been identified as the epicenter of the sudden spike in South Korea coronavirus cases. This claim was supported by the fact that a significant subsection of the church can be found in Wuhan, the city in which the virus was first identified. Moreover, concerns have been raised over the fact that the Shincheonji cult had held an annual gathering a few months ago, during the particular time frame when the coronavirus was beginning its rampant spread in China.
“Almost half the identified coronavirus cases have been linked to the Shincheonji cult,” said Eric Yoon (11), member of devout Christian family. “Additionally, South Korea’s first coronavirus super-spreader was identified to be a member of this fringe Christian mega-church. Although my entire family is Christian, I had never heard about the Shincheonji cult until the coronavirus happening and was rather surprised when I saw on the news that Shincheonji’s following numbered in the hundred thousands. What shocked me even more, however, was that Shincheonji is considered to be a relatively small sector among alternative religions in South Korea. The fact that so many Koreans were part of such unconventional religious groups and that I was entirely unaware of this issue alarmed me.”
Among the total population of confirmed infectees of the coronavirus in South Korea, more than 70 percent of all cases have been concentrated in Daegu, where most Shincheonji activities are based. As a result of the sudden spike in coronavirus cases, South Korean citizens have also been subjected to international travel bans or entry restrictions from more than 80 countries, and students of Korean ethnicity studying abroad have also been subjected to scrutinization of their recent travel history. Moreover, the coronavirus’s rather dubious origins and its pervasiveness in southeast Asia has created internationally discriminatory sentiments against Asians as a whole.
“Xenophobia is the ugly cousin of the unfortunate current coronavirus situation,” said Royce Wallace, counselor. “Because people are continually associating the virus with the issue of race, people who should bear no responsibilities for the coronavirus problem are being victimized. Additionally, when populations are uneducated on how to respond to an issue, racism and blame is often the major reaction they resort to. This is not only the case for the coronavirus; the same thing happened with the Ebola disease and MERS. I remember back when Ebola was a relevant issue, many students of African descent at my school were being teased or ostracized. The same thing is happening with Asians during the coronavirus; merely due to their race, they are being subject to unfair treatment. This racism is inherent among Asians themselves as well—Koreans stores were turning away Chinese customers when the coronavirus outbreak started, the same way others were avoiding interacting with Koreans based on the fact that they were Asian. I think a lot of the racist reactions that have come about since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic is just the unfortunate product when fear takes control of logic. Instead of letting emotions dictate actions, people should rather work to have empathy for those who are marginalized in this time of crisis. Moreover, this effort to understand the persecuted should not just be relevant during the coronavirus; people should learn to adopt such mindsets during other times as well.”