The Newsletter 87 Autumn 2020

Mask dynamics between the Korean government and civil society in the COVID-19 era

Jae-Hyung Kim

More than seven months have passed since the World Health Organization first reported a novel coronavirus disease. On 5 August 2020, the accumulated number of confirmed cases in South Korea was 14,456 and the accumulated death toll 302. South Korea has been one of the most successful countries in controlling the outbreak, employing aggressive measures such as quick and large-scale testing whilst maintaining daily routines. The Western press has started to examine the reasons behind this success, with some crediting the Confucian collectivist culture as a fundamental ethical motivation. They have further argued that Koreans tend to be submissive to authority, willing to follow the government’s strict measures without question. This article presents an insider’s perspective of South Korea’s successful response to the virus, focusing on the dynamics and debates surrounding face masks, in order to demonstrate how the interaction between the Korean government and civil society has played an important role in these critical times.

With the first case of COVID-19 confirmed on 20 January, the issues of most concern included the existence of asymptomatic cases and the fact that COVID-19’s early symptoms were indiscernible from those of the common cold. Such uncertainty provoked anxiety and fear. There was also rage directed towards the Chinese government for their reticence in sharing information, which was seen to have contributed to the spreading of COVID-19. The fear that infected Chinese people would spread the disease within South Korea led many Koreans to demand a government ban on Chinese nationals from entering the country. Foreign workers, Korean Chinese, and Koreans returning from China also became subject to hatred borne out of fear. In such an atmosphere of uncertainty, anxiety, and hatred, face masks soon became an important commodity in Korean society as citizens regarded masks to be the only weapon of defense against COVID-19.

While most countries conducted lockdowns or strict social distancing measures in order to stop COVID-19 from spreading, the Korean government enforced relatively weaker policies. Many experts have cited thorough tracking, wide-range testing, and aggressive treatment as the reasons for South Korea’s successful COVID-19 control amidst such relaxed social distancing policies, yet it would be impossible to discuss Korea’s response to COVID-19 without addressing the important role that masks have played. In the early stages of the pandemic, when the efficacy of the state’s policy had yet to be proven, and with the hindsight of past experiences, the social consensus that emerged was for everyone to wear a face mask. A face mask used to be rarely seen in Korea, but after the 2009 Swine Flu epidemic and the 2018 MERS epidemic, mask wearing became common practice. In addition to the gradual increase of novel infectious diseases, the problem of air pollution resulting from fine dust particles led people to rely on masks as protective gear and to incorporate them into daily routine. On days with high pollution levels, more and more people began to wear masks when going outside. The South Koreans’ familiarity with wearing masks, meant they naturally and easily employed this strategy to tackle the new risk of COVID-19.

In the very beginning, expert groups, including the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did in fact not encourage mask wearing. This was because information on the novel disease was still scarce and evidence that mask wearing could prevent it was lacking. Arguments originating from the WHO and the US CDC, that masks do not help contain the virus and can even pose a bigger threat, were also espoused by some experts in Korea. From the end of February, however, the assertion that face masks could be an effective means of protecting the public from infected individuals by blocking the spread of droplets and aerosols began to persuade many. In a situation where carriers of the virus could not always be identified, encouraging everyone to wear a mask emerged as an efficient method to prevent the spread of the disease at a low cost.

Due to the fact that face masks could protect healthy members of the public from the infected, they came to be endowed with a new social meaning of being a ‘public good’ or ‘common resource’. However, as mask wearing came to be established as an important norm in preventing COVID-19, the greater demand for KF80·KF94·KF99 face masks 1 KF80·KF94·KF99 face masks, produced in South Korea, respectively filter out 80%, 94%, and 99% of bioaerosols.  by the public led to the risk of a supply shortage for medical professionals. This was not due to a supply shortage per se – factories were producing enough to go around – but rather due to the market logic of increasing profits at this critical time. Acts of buying in bulk and then reselling at a higher price meant that masks were not being fairly distributed.

The public’s response was to demand that the government ensure a stable mask supply. This represented a fundamental shift in perceptions indeed since, for the government to acknowledge the need to intervene in the matter of mask supplies, the failure of the market also had to be acknowledged. Face masks, which had been personal commodities in the past, were now transformed into public goods; accordingly, the responsibility of ensuring their supply was handed to the government. In other words, the situation arising from COVID-19 led the citizens of South Korea to regard ‘access to masks for self-protection’ as a basic right of citizenship, and ‘the provision of a stable supply of masks’ as a duty that the government had to rightly serve. Criticism arose against the government when this duty was not properly fulfilled and mask supply became an important standard in evaluating state competence in controlling COVID-19. Even when the effectiveness of face masks had yet to be proven, the government accepted this demand made by its citizens and strove to supply masks through several measures, among which was the ‘public mask’ scheme – made possible with South Korea’s public health system – which ensured that all citizens could purchase two masks per week at selected pharmacies nationwide. As a result, most members of the public were able to gain steady access to face masks. This has been widely regarded as one of the reasons that South Korea was able to successfully keep COVID-19 under control.

Another issue arose, however, as the government came to replace the free market as the key supplier of masks. When the supply of masks had been left to the market, they had been expensive but could be bought by anyone; with their transformation into a common resource, individuals residing in South Korea but not documented by the public health system could no longer gain access to them. As a result, political debates emerged on the issue of Koreans and the ‘Other’ in the right to obtain masks, which expanded to a new discourse on inequality concerning citizenship in South Korean society. The National Migrant Human Rights Organization issued a statement on 7 March arguing that “hundreds of thousands of people are excluded, such as migrants who have stayed less than 6 months without health insurance, foreign students, migrant workers who work in un-licensed farming and fishing businesses, and unregistered foreigners”. Also excluded from the ‘public mask’ scheme were refugees. This exclusion of foreigners was echoed in the Emergency Disaster Relief Fund provided to Korean citizens. Following aggressive criticism from civil society, the government expanded the eligibility for masks and the relief fund to foreigners, but some problems still remain.

Amidst the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, the South Korean government is building a better disease control system by reflecting upon past failures; civil society is also doing its part, striving for the well-being of both individuals and society. As the case of ‘public masks’ presented above has demonstrated, the dynamic interaction between the government and civil society – having little to do with Confucian culture – has been one of the key factors of success in dealing with COVID-19. The pandemic is ongoing and the future is unclear but South Korea’s government and civil society, cooperating at times and contesting when needed, appear to be well equipped to acknowledge and handle problems such as economic downturn, discrimination at the margins of society, exclusion, and hatred that has accompanied the drawn-out crisis of COVID-19.

Jae-Hyung Kim, Assistant Professor, Department of Culture & Liberal Arts, Korea National Open University