After pressure from a group of embassies in Seoul, the South Korean government agreed to allow foreign residents to register overseas vaccinations for use in the COOV app vaccine pass and to apply for booster shots. Korean nationals vaccinated overseas and foreign residents with quarantine exemptions have been allowed to register their overseas vaccinations, but most foreign residents could not register their vaccination status. Fear over the omicron variant prompted the government to expand the use of the vaccine pass to a wider range of activities, including cafes and restaurants. This would have effectively shut fully vaccinated foreign residents out of public life.
The controversy focused attention on several aspects of South Korea’s COVID-19 policy that have not received much attention in the media. The first is recognition of overseas vaccinations. Before vaccines were widely available, South Korea required everyone entering the country to quarantine for 14 days. As the pace of vaccination picked up in the middle of this year, quarantine was waived for those vaccinated in South Korea. Under pressure from overseas Koreans, the government implemented a system to waive quarantine for people vaccinated overseas. During this time, South Korean citizens vaccinated overseas faced similar difficulties, forcing many to get revaccinated in South Korea. After the omicron variant appeared, the government again required quarantine, this time for 10 days, for everybody entering the country.
Though unpopular among travelers, the strict pre-vaccine era quarantine was fair and based on sound epidemiological principles. In a pandemic, quarantines work best when applied universally regardless of nationality or origin of travel. This policy worked for South Korea in 2020. The country remained open but managed to keep infections low.
Things changed when the policy shifted to selective quarantine based on location of the vaccination. The official line was that health authorities feared that vaccination certificates from overseas could be faked and thus posed a risk. While valid, no other developed country took this approach; most recognized overseas vaccinations while a few kept the doors closed. The focus on location of vaccination helps explain why authorities refused to recognize overseas vaccinations of foreign residents.
The second is the use of a vaccine pass. Many national and local governments in places with high vaccination rates have adopted vaccine passes, though not without controversy. In South Korea, controversy has erupted over a recent proposal to require young people aged 12 to 18 to show a vaccine pass to enter cram schools, public study rooms and libraries, even though vaccination is not required for school. Parents who remain reticent about vaccinating their children are upset about the requirement and have begun pushing back.
At the other end of the age spectrum, older Koreans who are fully vaccinated but not comfortable with using technology may be locked out of the public life. Cell phone diffusion in South Korea is among the highest in the world, but some seniors limit their use to voice calls and text messages.
As elsewhere, the purpose of vaccine passes is twofold: create spaces where vaccinated people can resume normal life and pressure the unvaccinated to get vaccinated. This makes sense in theory and works well in high-risk situations such as during traveling and at large public gatherings. Problems arise, however, when vaccine passes begin to affect daily activities, such as school and shopping. To work, a pass needs to be checked and people who do not “pass” are turned away. This burdens businesses and institutions, creating social stress in the process.
At the heart of the controversies lies the power of the COOV app to limit what people can do. Technology-resistant seniors and foreign residents vaccinated overseas are not large in number, but they are members of society. Though much larger in number, teenagers and their concerned parents share the same fear of being locked out of society by the app.
As the sudden appearance of the omicron variant has shown, COVID-19 continues to dish out new fears and prolong a return to normal life. It has bedeviled policymakers and public health experts at every turn. Despite increasing domestic criticism and a recent surge in cases, South Korea has done much better than most other countries in dealing with the pandemic.
South Korea’s response to the pandemic has focused on reducing the spread of the disease and the impact on society. Controls have been adopted and adjusted within the context of their overall effect on society. Policymakers should draw on this experience to develop practices that encourage cooperation with public health measures instead of fear of an omnipotent app.