Why Seoul's new nightclub cluster with 153 infected is going to be much harder to contact trace

The man had visited gay clubs.

Tanya Ong | May 15, 2020, 04:43 PM

South Korea is now fighting to prevent a second wave of infections.

The country now has over 11,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with a growing cluster linked to nightclubs in Seoul's Itaewon area.

Sudden spike in cases due to one cluster

Since mid-April, South Korea has seen fewer than 15 cases of Covid-19, Yonhap reported, with the number of domestic infections even falling to zero on some days.

That is until the country saw an unexpected spike in cases from a cluster that recently emerged in Seoul.

The cluster, involving a string of nightclubs in the Itaewon area, has seen secondary and tertiary infections reported not only in Seoul but across the country.

The Itaewon cluster has swelled to at least 153 people as of late Thursday (May 14), according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

Nightclub cluster linked to 1 man

The Itaewon cluster is believed to be linked to a 29-year-old clubber who had gone to five gay clubs in Itaewon during the weekend of May 1 and 2.

The Yongjin city resident tested positive on May 6.

Since then, South Korean authorities are trying to track down all the people who may have possibly been exposed to the virus.

On May 14, Korea Herald reported that an estimated 35,000 people have been tested over the Itaewon infection cluster.

According to Vice, the city has secured a list of 10,905 people who visited the district through location data from mobile phone operators.

These people have been sent text messages asking them to come forward and get tested.

Testing strategy relying on people coming forward

For months, South Korea has relied on its extensive testing programme allowing officials to identify and isolate infections before it spreads.

This strategy relies on people's willingness to get tested and volunteer personal information.

Which has worked fine for the country so far. Until the emergence of the Itaewon cluster, which involves a string of entertainment venues that have catered to the LGBTQ community.

Suddenly, this strategy of relying on people to come forward and get tested has run into obvious difficulties.

Stigma surrounding LGBTQ issues

Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea. However, a strong stigma surrounding LGBTQ issues remains.

Once news broke that the 29-year-old Covid-19 patient had visited gay clubs, anti-gay hate comments had accumulated on the Facebook page of King Club, Straits Times reported.

This discrimination and hostility against homosexuality makes it more likely for potential victims to stay in the dark, according to Daekyeung University professor Kwak Hye-weon.

Kwak also explained that for many of these clubs, club-goers might pay to stay anonymous, hence making it even more difficult to trace them through financial transactions.

Anonymous testing

The promise of anonymous testing, however, may be a crucial step in encouraging people to step forward.

ST reported that health officials have promised to not ask for personal details if people come forward, meaning they do not need to reveal the club they visited.

Public health policy director-general Yoon Tae-ho from the Health Minister Yoon Tae-Ho was quoted saying, "A day's hesitation would cost the entire community an entire month before returning to normal daily life."

However, as of May 13, an estimated 700 out of over 5,000 people who visited the first five clubs identified in the cluster, still remain uncontactable.

Stricter measures following news of the cluster

Korea Herald reported that South Korea has pushed back the reopening of schools by one week due to the surge in cases linked to the cluster.

Students will go back to class in phases starting next Wednesday (May 20).

Seoul, as well as other municipal governments have also issued an administrative order banning gatherings at entertainment establishments.

This means that club and bar owners are to suspend operations.

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images